NUSA DUA, Indonesia (Reuters) - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Saturday calledon rivals in the disputed South China Sea to back up territorial claims with legal evidence -- a challenge to China's declaration of sovereignty over vast stretches of the region.
"We also call on all parties to clarify their claims in the South China Sea in terms consistent with customary international law," Clinton said in remarks at Asia's largest security conference.
"Claims to maritime space in the South China Sea should be derived solely from legitimate claims to land features," Clinton said.
The South China Sea row has taken center stage at this week's meeting of the ASEAN Regional Forum on the Indonesian island of Bali, where the United States, China and Southeast Asian nations have discussed the future of the potentially resource-rich region.
China, Taiwan, and four ASEAN members -- the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam -- all claim territory in the South China Sea, while Washington has irritated Beijing by declaring it also has a national interest at stake in ensuring freedom of navigation and trade.
China's claim is the biggest and Beijing says it has had undisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea since ancient times.
Beijing on Thursday agreed to take preliminary steps with its Southeast Asian nations to establish a "code of conduct" for the South China Sea, a step Clinton said could ease tensions that have rattled the region as disputes between China, Vietnam and the Philippines heat up. But Clinton on Saturday indicated that the United States would push for more clarity on the subject, suggesting that all nations involved should delineate their claims according to the 1982 international Law of the Sea.
The Philippines also said China's claims had no validity under international law.
U.S. officials said many of the national claims to territory in the region were exaggerated, and that many nations had also preferred to legitimize claims based on historical precedent rather than land features.
(Reporting by Andrew Quinn, Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Daniel Magnowski)