China wary of ASEAN front on sea row

BEIJING — Territorial disputes in the South China Sea should be resolved directly by the nations involved, Beijing said Tuesday, ahead of a summit of Southeast Asian allies expected to address the volatile issue.

The Philippines said this week it was looking to form a united front among ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) members meeting on the Indonesian island of Bali from Thursday on the South China Sea wrangle.

The ASEAN forum will be followed by a broader East Asian summit which US President Barack Obama will attend — a move seen as a US diplomatic offensive to ally itself with countries wary of China's emerging might.

But Beijing, which prefers to negotiate individually with its weaker neighbors, said the East Asia summit was not the right forum for a discussion of territorial disputes.

"China believes that the disputes should be resolved through peaceful consultations between parties directly concerned," China's assistant foreign minister Liu Zhenmin told journalists at a briefing.

"The intervention of outside forces is not helpful for the settlement of the issue, on the contrary it will only complicate the issue and sabotage peace and stability and development in the region," he said in apparent reference to the United States.

The Philippines' foreign undersecretary for policy, Erlinda Basilio, said his country would raise its proposal at every opportunity at this week's top-level talks in Bali, which will be joined by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.

But the Philippines' initiative, including a call for a meeting of claimant states, was quickly undercut Tuesday with Malaysia indicating it would not get on board.

"China is showing a positive step by organizing seminars and workshops, that is very positive. ASEAN should reciprocate on that," Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman told AFP.

"To introduce another forum will complicate the matter further," he said, adding it was more constructive to concentrate on a non-binding 2002 code of conduct which critics dismiss as toothless.

China's rival Taiwan, as well as ASEAN countries Brunei, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam, all lay claim to all or part of the Spratlys, which straddle vital shipping lanes in the South China Sea.

Washington has backed Southeast Asian nations' campaign for a multilateral solution based on international law and several ASEAN members locked in territorial disputes with Beijing have welcomed the US intervention. — Agence France-Presse

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