KUALA LUMPUR - The South China Sea spat took centre stage at the 48th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting (AMM) with the region's foreign ministers urging intensified efforts to draw up a Code of Conduct (CoC) amid rising tensions in the disputed waters.
China, one of the claimants in the maritime dispute, is adamant that the issue be kept off the agenda at the ongoing AMM and that it should be thrashed out at the senior officials' level.
The issue threatens to boil over to the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) security meeting tomorrow, which will see participation by 27 countries, including the United States and China.
Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Anifah Aman said there had been progress in the consultations between ASEAN and China on the CoC but the pace must be hastened.
"We urge our senior officials to intensify their consultations so that the CoC can be established as soon as possible," he told reporters at the end of the AMM here.
Anifah said the foreign ministers also discussed ways to address the erosion of trust and confidence among parties following recent developments in the South China Sea, including land reclamation and an escalation of tensions on the ground.
"We agreed that it is imperative that this matter is handled constructively and explored the possibility of putting in place preventive measures to ensure that disagreements among parties do not escalate into a situation that undermines peace, security and stability," he added.
China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters after meeting Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak that the CoC should not be raised during the foreign ministers' meeting.
"The CoC should not be discussed at this ASEAN meeting, we have our special officials' meeting and working group," said Wang, referring to the nine meetings between ASEAN and China senior officials on the issue.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, who arrived here yesterday, is expected to meet Wang today for a bilateral meeting.
ASEAN and China agreed in 2002 on a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DoC), a document which, among others, reaffirmed the parties' commitment to international law.
China, Taiwan and ASEAN members - Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei - are disputing the maritime boundaries in the resource-rich seas.
The parties have been working to draw up an official and binding CoC to further promote peace and stability.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, whose country has taken its maritime dispute to international arbitration, had strong words for China.
"As we speak, we see no let-up on the unilateral and aggressive activities of our northern neighbour in the South China Sea.
"The massive reclamation activities covering at least 800ha and construction of facilities in the reclaimed features have undermined the peace, security and stability in the South China Sea," he said in his remarks during the AMM Retreat yesterday.
Del Rosario said his country would only agree to halt any land reclamation and construction activities if China agreed to do the same.
He said the Philippines would actively promote a proposal which the United States had made earlier this year for all claimant countries to halt reclamation, construction and any aggressive action that could heighten tensions.
"We have to emphasise, however, that this should not in any way legitimise the status of the features reclaimed by China," he said.
Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who will be taking part in the East Asia Summit and the ARF, said her country would also register its concerns over rising tensions in the South China Sea during the meetings.