U.S. Urges Calm in Sea Disputes During Southeast Asia Summit

Senior diplomats from Southeast Asian nations, China and the United States wrapped up talks in Myanmar's capital Sunday with a statement urging all sides to avoid confrontations in the South China Sea.

Overlapping ownership claims in the oil- and gas-rich sea continue to be a major regional flashpoint, but efforts by the U.S. and Philippines to temporarily halt all so-called "provocative acts" such as oil drilling, failed to attract broad support.

The gathering in Myanmar's capital city Naypyidaw marks another milestone for the country's political opening, as it plays host to this year's major meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian nations.

But just like recent ASEAN gatherings, the bloc's key issue: how to address maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea remains unresolved, says Myanmar's foreign minister.

"It is not that one party is trying to influence others, the others against the one country," he said. "All ASEAN, not ASEAN versus China. This is what we call it the ASEAN... we would like to settle all these kind of disputes in a very peaceful manner."

The emphasis on diplomacy comes after months of sometimes violent territorial confrontations.

In May, China moved an oil rig to waters near the Paracel islands, which Vietnam also claims. The move sparked a violent backlash against Chinese businesses in Vietnam. Chinese land reclamation efforts near islets claimed by the Philippines also set off alarms in Manila.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry says he remains hopeful the matter can be resolved without hostilities.

"We all underscored the importance of negotiations on a binding code of conduct," he said. "And I stressed the importance of everybody clarifying claims under international law and proceeding under the legal process through the law, through arbitration, and also through bilateral relationships."

Efforts to agree on a binding code of conduct have faltered for more than a decade, partly because of Chinese opposition. The lack of progress has led some countries such as the Philippines to try other legal venues to determine ownership.

ASEAN Secretary General Le Luong Minh tells VOA that because of the growing tensions, negotiators must find a peaceful breakthrough.

"It is urgent, it is important now that ASEAN can engage China and can intensify... these consultations, these negotiations, towards the early conclusion and adoption of a code of conduct," he said.

Chinese state-backed media Monday played up the failure of the U.S. proposal to freeze provocative acts in disputed parts of the Sea, claiming Washington uses the issue to meddle in the region.

VOA News / Aug. 12, 2014 08:06 KST