US says Southeast Asia concern over China at 'all-time high'

NAYPYITAW - Southeast Asian countries on Sunday expressed concern over "increased tensions" in the South China Sea and called for stepped-up talks with China, in what the United States said was a setback for China's efforts to play down the disputes.

But there was no specific mention of China in the final statement from an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting and the 10 nations did not take up a US and Philippine call for a freeze on provocative acts in the sea, in what China will likely see as a positive result.

A senior US official said ASEAN countries' concern over the South China Sea tension was at "all-time high" based on private conversations, although their public statements were more guarded to avoid antagonising China.

"We urged all parties concerned to exercise self-restraint and avoid actions which would complicate the situation and undermine peace, stability, and security in the South China Sea," ASEAN said in a communique following their meeting this weekend in the Myanmar capital Naypyitaw.

The United States is using the meeting of the region's foreign ministers in Myanmar to step up its engagement in the off-shore tension, by calling for a moratorium on actions such as China's planting in May of an oil rig in waters that Vietnam also claims.

The ASEAN Regional Forum brings together 27 countries including the United States, China, Russia, Japan, India and Australia.

US ally the Philippines has also called for a freeze as part of a three-step plan to ease tension in the resource-rich sea, through which passes US$5 trillion (S$6.26 trillion) of trade a year.

Senior US officials accompanying Secretary of State John Kerry at the two-days of talks described the wording as a new and strong criticism of recent Chinese assertive actions in the South China Sea as a reversal for China.

"This language represents a significant setback for China's efforts to play for time and change the subject," said one senior US administration official.

A senior State Department official said ASEAN members had made clear they were "increasingly concerned about the escalatory pattern of behaviour". "They have decided it is no longer enough to accentuate the positive," the senior State Department official said.

The communique called for effective implementation of a 2002 non-binding agreement on conduct in the South China Sea and stepped up ASEAN's call for an early conclusion of a binding maritime Code of Conduct. ASEAN and China have begun talks on that code but made little substantive progress so far.

The statement made a brief reference to the three-point Philippine plan for a freeze on destabilising actions, saying only that it had been noted.

Most claimants have flouted the 2002 guidelines, leading to rising tension in the South China Sea between four ASEAN claimant nations and China, which claims 90 percent of the waters. The rancour has split ASEAN, with several states including some of the claimants reluctant to antagonise Asia's economic giant.

China rejects US involvement in the dispute and has already dismissed the proposal for a freeze. China accuses the United States of emboldening claimants such as the Philippines and Vietnam with its military "pivot" back to Asia.