KUALA LUMPUR • China and South-east Asian nations have agreed to set up a foreign ministers' hotline to tackle emergencies in the disputed South China Sea, said a senior official of the Asean grouping.
China claims most of the potentially energy-rich sea, through which US$5 trillion (S$6.9 trillion) in ship-borne trade passes every year, and rejects the rival claims of Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.
With the region having become Asia's biggest potential military flashpoint, the United States has urged claimants to settle differences through talks, saying its Pacific Fleet aims to protect sea lanes critical to US trade.
But China rejects US involvement in the dispute, and Beijing's more assertive approach recently, including land reclamation and construction on disputed reefs, has stirred tension. The hotline will be announced at next week's meeting of foreign ministers of Asean, said the senior Asean official, who has knowledge of the discussions.
"The hotline is likely to be announced in a joint statement at the end of the meetings," the official, who declined to be identified because the talks were private, said yesterday. The foreign ministers' hotline will be the first involving China, although the Philippines and Vietnam have had a naval hotline since last year to monitor the disputed waters.
South-east Asian leaders hope the emergency hotline will help defuse the tension provoked over naval encounters and China's claims, the official said.
Tuesday's meeting in Malaysia is to be attended by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and US Secretary of State John Kerry, with other Asian powers, including India and Japan, also taking part.