US tries to cool sea tensions at Asia security summit

US tries to cool sea tensions at Asia security summit
US Secretary of State John Kerry (3-R) shakes hands with Vietnam's Deputy Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh (2-R) as they arrive on a stage for a photo session

NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar - The United States on Sunday pressed its case for a freeze on hostile acts in waters contested by China and its Southeast Asian neighbours, but said it did not want to "confront" Beijing over its strategy in the region.

US Secretary of State John Kerry is pushing for an agreement to end all actions that risk further inflaming regional relations, following several tense encounters in the disputed South China Sea this year.

Washington's top diplomat is touring the region despite a slew of major international crises in other parts of the world as the US looks to reinvigorate alliances in the Asia-Pacific as part of President Barack Obama's "pivot" east.

Sea disputes are likely to dominate security talks at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Myanmar's capital Naypyidaw on Sunday afternoon.

The meet brings together Southeast Asian foreign ministers and key partners, including the US, Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the European Union.

A senior US administration official said concern among its Southeast Asian allies about "Chinese behaviour was at an all time high".

But the official insisted there would not be a "showdown" between the two world superpowers.

"We don't want to confront China. But we have a series of interests and principles that drive our approach in the region where they diverge with China," the official said.

Kerry on Saturday formally put forward Washington's proposal to cool maritime tensions based on claimant states agreeing to step back from actions that could "complicate or escalate disputes".

The US waded in to the South China Sea row following a series of maritime incidents between China and rival claimants, including Beijing's positioning of an oil rig in waters also claimed by Vietnam which sparked deadly riots in the Southeast Asian nation.

'Galvanising' role

China claims sovereignty over almost the entire sea, which lies on key shipping routes and is believed to be rich in mineral and oil deposits.

But its claims overlap with ASEAN states Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, as well as Taiwan.

US officials hailed American influence in ASEAN talks that began Friday, saying it had helped the bloc issue a united statement on the sea issue, which has previously seen friction between some member states with maritime claims and supporters of China.

"We think we have been successful in galvanising and serving as a catalyst," said a State Department official.

ASEAN said it was "seriously concerned" over the maritime disputes, in a statement by foreign ministers Sunday, that had been delayed as members wrangled over the language of the South China Sea section.

"We urged all parties concerned to exercise self-restraint and avoid actions which would complicate the situation and undermine peace, stability, and security," it said.

'Guns and butter'

Earlier Sunday Kerry also seized the chance to reassure his Japanese and South Korean counterparts over the US' commitment on a range of other security concerns, particularly over nuclear-armed North Korea.

"We have a great deal to talk about with respect to the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) and the security issues in the region," Kerry said.

The US has called on Pyongyang to release two American citizens facing trial in North Korea and urged its nationals to avoid travel to the reclusive state.

Pyongyang has also sent its foreign minister Ri Su Yong to attend the Southeast Asian meetings.

The US said the impoverished state could not expect international economic assistance at the same time as pursuing nuclear weapons and conducting missile tests.

"North Korea can't have both guns and butter," the State Department official said.

But the festering South China Sea dispute is leading Sunday's agenda.

While China says it is not the aggressor in the disputed waters, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Saturday warned that "the Chinese side is bound to make clear and firm reactions" if provoked.

Wang held a bilateral meeting with his American counterpart on Saturday.

In a statement released by the Chinese embassy in Myanmar following the talks, Beijing welcomed "the constructive role" played by the US in regional affairs, adding that it "hopes that the US can respect China's legitimate rights and interests in this region".

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