KUALA LUMPUR - A Southeast Asian summit will urge "self-restraint" in the South China Sea but avoid directly criticising Chinese actions that have fanned tensions in the contested waters, a diplomatic source with knowledge of a draft statement said Friday.
Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) gather in Malaysia on Monday for an annual meeting expected to include discussion of efforts underway by China to create islands on fragile coral reefs whose ownership is disputed.
The actions have outraged the Philippines and added to regional concerns over Beijing's assertion of sovereignty over virtually the entire South China Sea.
The draft statement will stress the need for "exercising self-restraint in the conduct of activities, not to resort to threat or use of force, and for the parties concerned to resolve their disputes/differences through peaceful means," the diplomatic source told AFP.
It also called for discussions with Beijing on a binding Code of Conduct (COC) governing behaviour in the South China Sea "to be intensified, to ensure the expedition of the establishment of an effective COC," the source said.
ASEAN has pushed China for more than a decade to agree on a code of conduct.
The code is expected to build on a non-binding 2002 pledge by countries with competing claims to the waters to respect freedom of navigation, resolve disputes peacefully and refrain from inflaming the situation.
The Philippines has expressed hopes the meeting in Malaysia will result in a strong expression of ASEAN concern. The draft statement could change based on discussions between leaders.
Beijing is widely believed to be dragging its feet on binding rules that could impede its freedom of action at sea.
Satellite photos emerged this month showed a flotilla of Chinese vessels dredging sand onto Mischief Reef, which is claimed by Manila.
The activities there and at other locations the spectre of a more permanent Chinese military and maritime presence far out into the South China Sea, from which it can project its growing might.
ASEAN members Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei, as well as non-member Taiwan, also have overlapping claims in the area.
The draft statement also calls for parties to abide by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a reference that could anger Beijing.
The Philippines last year filed a formal plea under UNCLOS challenging China's expansive claims.
China has refused to recognise the case, which is pending.
In an interview with AFP last week, Philippine President Benigno Aquino said China's activities "should engender fear for the rest of the world" and could threaten freedom of navigation.
China has hit back at all criticism, saying it was free to do as it pleased in waters it considers its own.
ASEAN has a history of treading carefully with China on the South China Sea due to Beijing's immense trade and diplomatic leverage over individual members - and because not all 10 member-states have maritime claims.