KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Southeast Asian nations want China to stop land reclamation in the disputed South China Sea, a regional official said Tuesday, but China insisted it has a right to continue the activity.
Le Luong Minh, secretary-general of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, said ASEAN foreign ministers expressed concerns in a meeting Tuesday over massive Chinese island-building activities that have escalated tensions in the area.
China recently pledged to start substantive negotiations on a "code of conduct" with ASEAN governing behavior in the resource-rich and busy waterways, but there is a gap between its pledge and the situation on the ground, Minh said.
"We are calling for the termination of such activities, which are of concern to us, and eroding trust and confidence among the parties, and complicating the very process of negotiating" the code of conduct, Minh told The Associated Press. "In the face of the situation, it is even more urgent for ASEAN and China to early conclude the COC."
China, Taiwan and several ASEAN members — the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei — have wrangled over ownership and control of the South China Sea in a conflict that has flared on and off for decades.
Tensions rose last year when China began building artificial islands in the Spratly Islands, which the U.S. and Beijing's rival claimant countries fear could impede freedom of navigation and overflights in a major transit area for the world's oil and merchandise.
The disputes have led to deadly confrontations between China and Vietnam, and Washington and governments in the region are concerned that greater military deployments increase the risk of miscalculations and accidental clashes that could spiral out of control.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said ASEAN ministers called for more self-restraint in handing the dispute.
He told reporters the grouping is exploring the "possibility of putting in place preventive measures" to ensure that disagreements among claimants would not flare into a regional conflict. He declined to give details.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, however, said the activities were in Chinese territory and there should be no double standards on the issue, in reference to land reclamation work by other claimants. He said all parties should support China and ASEAN in speeding up negotiations for a code of conduct.
"It's not a constructive move to exercise double standards on the issue," Wang told reporters on the sidelines of the ASEAN meetings. "China and ASEAN are capable enough to work together to maintain the peace and stability in the South China Sea."
U.S. officials have said the amount of land reclaimed by Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan in the disputed area over the last 45 years totals 40 hectares (100 acres), a fraction of the more than 1,200 hectares (3,000 acres) reclaimed by China in the last 18 months alone.
Washington has said it will call for a halt to aggressive actions by China and other claimants to allow a diplomatic solution to the rift. Washington is not a party to the conflict but says a peaceful resolution of the problem and freedom of navigation are in the U.S. national interest. China rejects any U.S. involvement.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said Tuesday that Manila "fully supports and will proactively promote the call of the United States on the 'three halts' — a halt in reclamation, halt in construction and a halt in aggressive actions that could further heighten tensions." But he stressed that Manila will not be bound by it unless other claimants agree to the same.
ASEAN foreign ministers will meet their U.S., Chinese, Australia and several other foreign counterparts on Thursday in the ASEAN Regional Forum, an annual Asian security meeting.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Monday that Secretary of State John Kerry would tackle the territorial issues in Malaysia.
"This is a forum in which critical security issues need to be brought up and discussed," Toner told reporters, adding that the U.S. would view as "provocative" any moves to "significantly increase the physical size or functionality of disputed features, or to militarize them."
Associated Press writers Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines, and Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.