South China Sea tensions flare at Asean security talks

Foreign Minister Albert Del Rosario said the Philippines was ready to help deescalate tensions in the disputed region, if China and other claimant states agreed to be bound by the same conditions. PHOTO: EPA

KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) - Southeast Asian diplomats called on China Tuesday to address concerns over its controversial island-building drive during regional security talks, with the Philippines slamming Beijing's "unilateral and aggressive activities".

The US and some Southeast Asian states have watched with growing alarm as Beijing expands tiny reefs in the South China Sea, topping some with military posts to reinforce its disputed claims over the strategic waters and fanning fears of future conflict.

The flashpoint issue has taken centre stage at a gathering hosted by the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) that began Tuesday.

But China, which is attending a series of sideline meetings, has insisted it will not talk about the dispute during the summit.

That position prompted a sharp rebuke from the Philippines, which along with Vietnam has been involved in the most direct territorial confrontations with China.

"As we speak, we see no let-up on the unilateral and aggressive activities of our northern neighbour in the South China Sea," Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told fellow Asean foreign ministers at an afternoon meeting, according to a transcript of his remarks obtained by AFP.

Manila's envoy also hit out at what he described as "massive reclamation activities" and construction by Beijing in the disputed sea which had "undermined peace, security and stability".

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi signalled Beijing was in no mood to talk about the South China Sea during the Kuala Lumpur meeting.

"China has never believed that multilateral fora are the appropriate place for discussing specific bilateral disputes," Wang told reporters in Singapore on Monday before flying to Malaysia.

Doing so will "heighten confrontation", he said, adding that China would not bow to pressure to stop its land reclamation.

However US and Southeast Asian officials insist the dispute must be raised.

"Asean can and should play a vital part in effecting an amicable settlement" on the South China Sea, Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman told delegates.

"Above all we must be seen to address this issue peacefully and cooperatively. We have made a positive start but we need to do more."

- Competing claims -

Beijing claims control over nearly all of the South China Sea, a key shipping route thought to hold rich oil and gas reserves.

Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei - all Asean members - also have various claims, as does Taiwan, many of which overlap.

Beijing has long insisted that disputes be handled on a bilateral basis between rival claimants.

Diplomats and analysts have long maintained that China's stance is aimed at preventing Asean from presenting a more united front.

But delegates say China will not be able to escape the issue in Kuala Lumpur.

"This is not Cambodia or Laos," one diplomat attending the talks told AFP, referring to a 2012 foreign ministers' meeting in which host Cambodia - China's ally - was accused of preventing discussion of it.

Adding to the tensions, a Washington-based think tank said this week Beijing could be preparing to build a second airstrip on an artificial island.

China is already building a 3,000m runway on Fiery Cross reef, which could ultimately be used for combat operations, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Wang rejected calls by some rival claimants and the United States to suspend the land reclamation.

"The freeze proposal may seem even-handed on the surface but it is actually unrealistic and will not work in practice," he said.

The talks will expand over the coming two days into the Asean Regional Forum (ARF), attended by US Secretary of State John Kerry, China's Wang and envoys from the wider region including Japan, the Koreas, Russia and elsewhere.

Kerry is to meet Wang on Wednesday morning on the sidelines.

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