South China Sea tensions flare at Asia security talks

KUALA LUMPUR - Southeast Asian diplomats called on China Tuesday to address concerns over its controversial island-building drive during regional security talks in Kuala Lumpur, after Beijing said the flashpoint issue was not up for discussion.

The US and some Southeast Asian states have watched with growing alarm as Beijing expands tiny reefs in the South China Sea, topping some with military posts to reinforce its disputed claims over the strategic waters and fanning fears of future conflict.

Ahead of the gathering hosted by the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that began Tuesday in Malaysia, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi signalled no compromise.

"China has never believed that multilateral fora are the appropriate place for discussing specific bilateral disputes," Wang told reporters in Singapore on Monday.

Doing so will "heighten confrontation", he said, adding that China would not bow to pressure to stop its land reclamation.

However US and Southeast Asian officials insist the dispute will be raised.

"ASEAN can and should play a vital part in effecting an amicable settlement" on the South China Sea, Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman told a meeting of foreign ministers from the 10-member Southeast Asian bloc.

"Above all we must be seen to address this issue peacefully and cooperatively. We have made a positive start but we need to do more."

Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario of the Philippines, which has been involved in the most direct territorial confrontations with China, called for a "halt in reclamation, halt in construction, and halt in aggressive actions that could further heighten tensions".

He said in a statement, however, that any such halt should not be seen "in any way (to) legitimise" Chinese land reclamation so far completed.

Competing claims

Beijing claims control over nearly all of the South China Sea, a key shipping route thought to hold rich oil and gas reserves.

Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei - all ASEAN members - also have various claims, as does Taiwan, many of which overlap.

Beijing has long insisted that disputes be handled on a bilateral basis between rival claimants.

Diplomats and analysts have long maintained that China's stance is aimed at preventing ASEAN from presenting a more united front.

But delegates say China will not be able to escape the issue in Kuala Lumpur.

"This is not Cambodia or Laos," one diplomat attending the talks told AFP, referring to a 2012 foreign ministers' meeting in which host Cambodia - China's ally - was accused of preventing discussion of it.

Adding to the tensions, a Washington-based think tank said this week Beijing could be preparing to build a second airstrip on an artificial island.

China is already building a 3,000-metre (10,000-foot) runway on Fiery Cross reef, which could ultimately be used for combat operations, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Wang rejected calls by some rival claimants and the United States to suspend the land reclamation.

"The freeze proposal may seem even-handed on the surface but it is actually unrealistic and will not work in practice," he said.

The talks will expand over the coming two days into the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), attended by US Secretary of State John Kerry, China's Wang and envoys from the wider region including Japan, the Koreas, Russia and elsewhere.

Kerry is to meet Wang on Wednesday morning on the sidelines.