China yesterday vowed "clear and firm reactions" to defend its interests in the South China Sea but rejected suggestions of aggression, as America's top diplomat urged restraint from all claimants to the bitterly contested waters.
A series of incidents between Beijing and several other nations with territorial claims to the sea has sent tensions soaring across Southeast Asia and spurred Washington to call for a halt to any activities that could worsen regional maritime relations.
Animosity over the South China Sea, a crucial maritime route that is also believed to hold huge oil and gas deposits, is dominating Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) talks in Myanmar, which began Friday and are broadening to include key world powers ahead of security discussions today
"The position of China to safeguard its own sovereignty, maritime rights and interests is firm and unshakeable," Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters following a meeting with Asean counterparts in the Myanmar capital Naypyidaw.
Beijing claims sovereignty over almost the entire sea including waters, islands, reefs, shoals and rocky outcrops nearer to other countries.
The reach of its claims has stirred years of diplomatic protest from Asean states Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, which also claim parts of the sea, while Taiwan is a sixth claimant.
Speaking ahead of bilateral talks with the 10-member Asean, Kerry said the US shared a "common responsibility" with the bloc to "ensure the maritime security of critical global seas lanes and ports".
Kerry's trip is seen as part of a wider US foreign policy pivot to reinvigorate alliances in the Asia-Pacific.
A draft statement from Asean foreign ministers, who met Friday, said the bloc had "serious concern" over recent developments in the disputed sea.
It also called for an end to "destabilising actions" in wording that is likely to have proved contentious for China's supporters within Asean -- no final statement had been released by yesterday afternoon.
Sunday's ARF will bring together Asean foreign ministers and key partners, including the US, Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the European Union.