By Lauren French
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States will stress "engagement and cooperation" with China at security talks next month in Southeast Asia where nations are wary of getting caught in superpower rivalry, a senior U.S. official said on Wednesday.
Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said the United States and China would unveil new cooperative initiatives at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum in Cambodia.
The two powers will announce plans to work together on humanitarian disaster relief and wildlife protection -- uncontroversial projects that reflect "our strong determination that we want to work with China," Campbell told the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
"We will have areas of differences, we will have areas where we will naturally compete, but it will be important to send a very clear message...that we want to build a strong, durable partnership with China," he added.
The 2012 annual gathering in Phnom Penh comes two years after fireworks erupted between the United States and China at the Hanoi gathering of the 27-member ASEAN Regional Forum.
In 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton voiced U.S. support for ASEAN's efforts at finding a multilateral solution to disputes over conflicting claims in the South China Sea that pit several Southeast Asian states against China.
Clinton's overtures drew a positive response from several Southeast Asian countries, prompting comments against "small countries" by Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi.
China's strident assertion of its territorial claims, underscored by a series of incidents between Chinese vessels and those of Vietnam and the Philippines, drove those countries to seek closer security ties with the United States.
Campbell did not give details on the new U.S.-China initiatives, calling them products of a multi-year effort by Washington and Beijing that he suggested would help quell Southeast Asian countries' fears that they may get caught between any struggle for power and influence in the region.
Campbell noted that the ASEAN states and China were working on a "Code of Conduct" for the South China Sea to ratchet down tensions over the disputed waters. The United States is not a party to the dispute or the code of conduct talks.
The United States will also discuss its plans to ease economic sanctions on Myanmar in response to recent political reforms in that long-isolated member of ASEAN, Campbell said.
(Reporting by Lauren French; Editing by Andrew Hay)