The United States yesterday pressed its case for a freeze on hostile acts in waters contested by China and its Southeast Asian neighbours, but said it did not want to "confront" Beijing over its strategy in the region.
US Secretary of State John Kerry is pushing for an agreement to end all actions that risk further inflaming regional relations, following several tense encounters in the disputed South China Sea this year.
Washington's top diplomat is touring the region looking to reinvigorate its alliances in the Asia-Pacific as part of President Barack Obama's "pivot" east.
Sea disputes were likely to dominate security talks at the Asean Regional Forum in Myanmar's capital Naypyidaw yesterday afternoon.
The meet brings together Southeast Asian foreign ministers and key partners, including the US, Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the European Union.
A senior US administration official said concern among its Southeast Asian allies about "Chinese behaviour was at an all time high".
But the official insisted there would not be a "showdown" between the two world superpowers.
"We don't want to confront China. But we have a series of interests and principles that drive our approach in the region where they diverge with China," the official said.
The US waded in to the South China Sea row following a series of maritime incidents between China and rival claimants, including Beijing's positioning of an oil rig in waters also claimed by Vietnam which sparked deadly riots in the Southeast Asian nation.
China claims sovereignty over almost the entire sea, which lies on key shipping routes and is believed to be rich in mineral and oil deposits. But its claims overlap with Asean states Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, as well as Taiwan.
Asean said it was "seriously concerned" over the maritime disputes, in a statement by foreign ministers yesterday.
While China says it is not the aggressor in the disputed waters, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Saturday warned that "the Chinese side is bound to make clear and firm reactions" if provoked.
Wang held a bilateral meeting with his American counterpart on Saturday.
In a statement released by the Chinese embassy following the talks, Beijing welcomed "the constructive role" played by the US in regional affairs, adding that it "hopes that the US can respect China's legitimate rights and interests in this region".