Southeast Asia ministers didn't discuss US plan on sea claims, diplomat says

NAYPYIDAW (REUTERS) - Southeast Asian foreign ministers did not discuss a US proposal for a freeze on provocative acts in the disputed South China Sea, a senior diplomat said, an apparent setback to US efforts to rein in China's assertive actions.

Le Luong Minh, secretary general of Asean, said the proposal was not discussed by foreign ministers in their meeting on Friday because there was already a mechanism in place to curtail actions such as land reclamation and building on disputed islands and reefs.

"It's not even an issue of Asean supporting or not supporting that proposal," he told Reuters, noting that China and Asean had already committed to "self restraint" on such action in an agreement signed in 2002.

Most claimants have flouted those guidelines, leading to rising tension in the South China Sea between four Asean claimant nations and China, which claims 90 per cent of the sea.

"It is up to Asean to encourage China to achieve a serious and effective implementation of this commitment," he said.

The top Asean diplomat said that the settlement of sovereignty claims in the South China Sea could only be resolved among the parties concerned.

He urged other counties to support Asean by encouraging China to work with it to reach an early conclusion of a Code of Conduct - a proposed plan for rules governing maritime actions.

Philippine Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario also appeared to tone down his proposal for a freeze or moratorium on activities causing tension in the South China Sea, calling instead for a "cessation" in remarks to reporters on Friday.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, who arrived at the regional meeting in Myanmar's capital, Naypyidaw, on Saturday, had proposed the freeze, marking a significant step-up in US involvement in the dispute.

China rejects US involvement in the dispute and has already dismissed proposals from Washington and Manila for a freeze on actions in disputed waters.

Kerry will meet foreign ministers and other top diplomats from China, Russia, Japan, India, Australia, the European Union and Southeast Asia among others at the Asean Regional Forum, which runs through Sunday.

The unusually strong US stance will add pressure on China to address growing regional concerns and could encourage some Asean nations to push for faster progress on the maritime code aimed at reducing tension.

China accuses the US of emboldening claimants such as the Philippines and Vietnam with its military "pivot"back to Asia.