China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) should place their strategic priority on maintaining regional stability and deepening economic cooperation despite competing claims in the South China Sea, officials and analysts said Thursday.
"Vietnam, like other ASEAN countries, hopes to continue close cooperation with related nations, especially with China," said Nguyen Thanh Bien, Vietnamese vice minister of industry and trade.
Speaking at the opening ceremony of the seventh Pan-Beibu Gulf (PBG) Economic Cooperation Forum, he said China and ASEAN can enhance mutual understanding and trust through deepening cooperation so as to maintain regional stability.
His remarks come as tensions between China and Vietnam have fermented after Vietnam passed the Law of the Sea in June. The law defines the Xisha Islands and Nansha Islands in the South China Sea as being within Vietnam's sovereignty and jurisdiction.
China and another ASEAN member -- the Philippines -- have also seen relations deteriorating recently due to competing claims regarding Huangyan Island, prompting concerns that the rows will hamper progress within the China-ASEAN cooperation framework.
"The territorial disputes between China and some ASEAN countries should in no way act as a hindrance," said Dato Mahani Abidin, managing director of the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) in Malaysia.
He said multi-level cooperation between China and ASEAN countries has shown substantial progress in recent years.
Bilateral trade between China and ASEAN has seen substantial growth in recent years after the launch of the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area on Jan. 1, 2010. ASEAN is China's third largest trade partner following the European Union and the United States.
In 2011, trade between China and ASEAN rose 24 percent year on year to 362.9 billion U.S. dollars, higher than the 22.5-percent growth for China's total foreign trade during the period.
U Win Shein, Myanmar's vice minister of transport, said strengthened regional development and cooperation will help offset impact of the confrontations.
Initiated in 2006, the annual PBG Economic Cooperation Forum has grown into a major sub-regional cooperation platform under the China-ASEAN framework. The PBG Economic Zone covers China's Guangxi, Guangdong and Hainan, as well as Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia and Brunei.
"The construction of the PBG region has promoted economic cooperation between China and ASEAN, which is in line with the region's interests," U Win Shein said.
A report on the Feasibility Study on Economic Cooperation was unveiled at the forum last year. The report identified priority areas for cooperation and was later approved at the 14th ASEAN-China Summit.
This year, the forum will lay out the PBG Economic Cooperation Action Roadmap and submit a proposal to the China-ASEAN Economic Ministers' Meeting and the 15th ASEAN-China Summit to be held later this year for deliberation.
Yang Mu, a senior researcher at the East Asian Institute of National University of Singapore, attributed booming cooperation to regional stability and continued trade.
He said that although disputes in the South China Sea have existed for a long time, related countries have agreed that a healthy and peaceful environment as well as extensive economic cooperation will benefit the whole region.
Li Fuyu, a Thai journalist who has closely followed ASEAN's development, said the South China Sea disputes represent a very sensitive topic.
"Countries in the Pan-Beibu Gulf region should deepen economic cooperation and downplay the disputes in order to focus on economic cooperation and cultural communication," Li said.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said China is willing to talk to ASEAN countries about legalizing a code of conduct in the South China Sea, adding that the issue should be discussed and solved peacefully through bilateral talks.
"Solving the problems will require deepened economic cooperation," Yang said.