BEIJING (Reuters) - China accused the Philippines on Friday of trying to legalize its occupation of islands in the disputed South China Sea, repeating that Beijing would never agree to international arbitration.
Frustrated with the slow pace of regional diplomacy, the Philippines in January angered China by asking a U.N. tribunal to order a halt to Beijing's activities that it said violated Philippine sovereignty over the islands, surrounded by potentially energy-rich waters.
Claims by an increasingly powerful China over most of the South China Sea have set it directly against U.S. allies Vietnam and the Philippines. Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia also claim parts of the waters and China has a separate dispute with Japan in the East China Sea.
Manila said on Thursday that a U.N. arbitration court had set up the tribunal which would hear Manila's complaint, but China said this was an attempt to steal Chinese territory.
"The Philippine side is trying to use this to negate China's territorial sovereignty and attach a veneer of 'legality' to its illegal occupation of Chinese islands and reefs," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement on its website (www.mfa.gov.cn).
The Philippines must immediately withdraw personnel and facilities from the islands, the ministry added, listing those which it said Manila was occupying.
Manila asked the tribunal of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to order a halt to China's activities.
But the convention did not apply in this case as what the Philippines was actually asking for was a decision on sovereignty, the ministry said.
"China's refusal to accept the Philippines' request for arbitration has full grounding in international law," it said.
China had always believed that the two countries should resolve their dispute through direct talks, the ministry added.
Southeast Asian nations stepped up efforts on Thursday to engage China in talks to resolve maritime tensions, agreeing to meet to try to reach common ground on disputed waters ahead of planned discussions in Beijing later this year.
Efforts by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to craft a code of conduct to manage South China Sea tensions all but collapsed last year at a summit chaired by Cambodia, a close economic ally of China, when the group failed to issue a closing statement for the first time.
(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Nick Macfie)