BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, Brunei - Chinese Premier Li Keqiang called Wednesday for a South China Sea of "peace, friendship and cooperation" as he extended a hand to Southeast Asian leaders wary of Beijing's territorial claims in the strategic waters.
"A peaceful South China Sea is a blessing for all," Li told the leaders during a summit in Brunei.
"We need to work together to make the South China Sea a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation."
Li made the comments in a meeting with the heads of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations during an annual series of summits held this year in the sultanate.
Some ASEAN members who hold various claims to the South China Sea have voiced increasing alarm at perceived provocative acts by Beijing in asserting its belief that most of the body of water is Chinese maritime territory.
But China has sought to portray a friendlier face more recently - while holding its ground on the issue - including during an Asia-Pacific summit on the Indonesian island of Bali earlier this week.
In sharp contrast to the often icy tone China takes with perceived rivals like the United States and Japan, Li showered his ASEAN counterparts with promises of friendship and deeper economic integration.
He called for the two sides to ramp up efforts to more than double China-ASEAN trade to $1 trillion by 2020, from about $400 billion last year.
Li's appearance in Brunei comes after Chinese President Xi Jinping dominated the Bali economic summit in the absence of US President Barack Obama.
Obama had to stay home due to the budget paralysis back in Washington and was represented in Bali, as well as in Brunei, by his secretary of state, John Kerry.