Analysts said increasing trade and economic ties have become an effective engine to ensure China-ASEAN ties stay on track as they have been recently shadowed by maritime claims.

Addressing the annual China-ASEAN Business and Investment Summit, Vice-President Xi Jinping asked the regional countries to advance connectivity, which he said is "a measure of strategic importance" for integration and economic competitiveness.

China is actively preparing for the establishment of the Chinese Committee on China-ASEAN Connectivity and will set up exchanges with ASEAN agencies.

"We are also ready to set up an investment and financing platform for connectivity, step up land connectivity with ASEAN countries, build maritime connectivity networks and expand cooperation in areas such as ports, maritime logistics and port industries," said Xi.

ASEAN members are among the top destinations for Chinese enterprises going global, and a key source of foreign investment in China in recent years.

Strengthening land and maritime connectivity has been a key part for both China and ASEAN to lift trade ties.

Trade between China and ASEAN surged from $7 billion in the early days of China-ASEAN relations to $362.8 billion last year.

China and ASEAN have a trade volume target of $500 billion by 2015.

The business summit, together with the China-ASEAN EXPO, which convenes at the same time, has become a major platform to realize goals set by the China-ASEAN FTA.

The China-ASEAN FTA, launched two years ago, covers 1.9 billion people.

China has been ASEAN's largest trading partner for three consecutive years and ASEAN has become China's third largest trading partner.

Addressing the summit, Xi also called on regional countries to improve FTA development, advance trade and investment liberalization and facilitation, and optimize the mix of import and export commodities.

"We should expand FTA coverage by acting in a spirit of openness, inclusion, equality and mutual benefit," said Xi.

Xi also said at the summit that the future destinies of China and ASEAN have never been so closely linked with each other as economic globalization and regional integration develop.

The more China progresses and develops closer links with the outside world, the more important it is for China to have a stable external environment, Xi said.

Stressing that China will always be a staunch force for peace and stability in the region and the world at large, Xi said China will never seek dominance.

Yet Xi also stressed that China is firm in safeguarding sovereignty, security and territorial integrity and is committed to resolving differences with neighbors concerning land, sea and maritime rights and interests through friendly negotiations.

Xi made the remarks as some ASEAN countries have claims on some of China's islands and water areas of the South China Sea, and have taken measures that have strained ties.

The annual expo has attracted leaders of several ASEAN members and business leaders.

Myanmar highly appreciates China's support for ASEAN centrality in the evolving regional architecture, and for the ASEAN integration process in building the ASEAN Community by 2015, President U Thein Sein said on Friday at the opening ceremony of the expo.

U Thein Sein also said it was important for all regional participants to work together to promote peace and development of the region as the present Asia-Pacific region has become the center of gravity in international relations and trade.

Addressing more than 1,000 business leaders attending the ceremony, U Thein Sein also said ASEAN was happy to see a healthy economy growing in China and welcomes the robust economic partnership with China.

"We wish to see peoples of ASEAN and China reaping the fruits of the ASEAN-China Free Trade Area," he said.

A trade balance of $11 billion in favor of ASEAN was realized for the first time in 2011, according to U Thein Sein.

Foreign direct investment from China to ASEAN more than doubled in 2011 compared to 2010.

"This is a very good trend and we should keep its momentum," he said.

According to U Thein Sein, the markets of ASEAN and China have their own characteristics and are endowed with natural and human resources.

Qiu Hong, China's assistant minister of commerce, said at the forum on the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area that China and ASEAN should deepen mutually beneficial cooperation, suggesting that agreements be fully implemented and duties fulfilled to further open up markets to promote trade and investment.

She said that by August, China reduced duties of about $50 billion yuan ($7.93 billion) for products from ASEAN.

Cham Prasidh, minister of commerce of Cambodia and the ASEAN economic ministers chair for 2012, said at the forum that China-ASEAN relations have been a valuable way for ASEAN enterprises to come to China and they certainly have a bright future.

Prasidh said the country hopes to export more garments and rice to China.

"Cambodia has annual production of 2 million tons (of rice) per year. Hopefully we can sell 1 million to China," he said.

He also encourages Chinese companies to invest in rice processing and import more agricultural equipment and heavy machinery for road construction from China.

Prasidh attributed the increasing trade volume between the two countries to the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area. "Our leaders want to double the trade volume to $5 billion by 2017. This is all achievable because ASEAN is in place," he said.

Participation of China in the economies of ASEAN members is very important for strengthening ties and development of the region, said Imron Cotan, Indonesian ambassador to China.

"There is an idiom that I believe in: 'Never bite the hand that feeds you'," he said, noting investment from China is very important in terms of providing job opportunities in the region, especially amid the global recession.

"We need China just as China needs ASEAN," he said.

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