KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Malaysia called Tuesday for more efforts to find a peaceful solution to rising tensions in the disputed South China Sea, as the United States and the Philippines said they would demand a stop to land reclamation and other aggressive actions by China at an annual diplomatic meeting in Kuala Lumpur.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman, at the start of a meeting with his counterparts from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, said the 10-member regional grouping must play a role to ensure an amicable settlement in the dispute over the resource-rich and busy waterway.
"Above all, we must be seen to address these issues peacefully and cooperatively," he said. "We have made a positive start but we need to do more."
China, Taiwan and ASEAN members — the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei — have wrangled over ownership and control of the South China Sea in a conflict that has flared on and off for decades.
Tensions rose last year when China began to build artificial islands in the Spratly Islands, which the U.S. and Beijing's rival claimant countries fear could impede freedom of navigation and overflights in a major transit area for the world's oil and merchandise.
The disputes have led to deadly confrontations between China and Vietnam, and Washington and governments in the region are concerned that boosting military deployments increase the risk of miscalculations and accidental clashes that can spiral out of control.
Washington has said it would call for a halt to aggressive actions by China and other rival nations to allow a diplomatic solution to a problem that threatens regional stability.
Washington is not a party to the conflict and has a policy of not taking sides in the territorial row, but says a peaceful resolution of the problem and freedom of navigation in the disputed waters were in the U.S. national interest. China rejects any U.S. involvement.
Philippines Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said Tuesday that Manila would push the U.S. call in the meetings this week, but would not agree to be bound by it unless China and other countries locked in the conflict also do so.
"As a means of de-escalating tensions in the region, the Philippines fully supports and will pro-actively promote the call of the United States on the 'three halts' — a halt in reclamation, halt in construction and a halt in aggressive actions that could further heighten tensions," del Rosario said in a statement.
"We have to emphasize, however, that this should not in any way legitimize the status of the features reclaimed by China," del Rosario said, referring to massive artificial islands that China started building last year on at least seven disputed reefs.
Australia will also register its concern over rising tensions in the South China Sea at the Malaysian meetings, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said in a statement.
However, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Tuesday that the ASEAN meetings were not the right forum to discuss the territorial rift and plans for a binding code of conduct to govern behavior in the South China Sea.
He reiterated Beijing's stance that the island-building work was in Chinese territory.
Southeast Asian foreign ministers will meet their U.S., Chinese, Australia and several other foreign counterparts in the ASEAN Regional Forum, an annual Asian security gathering, in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Monday that Secretary of State John Kerry would tackle the territorial issues in Malaysia.
"This is a forum in which critical security issues need to be brought up and discussed," Toner told reporters, adding the U.S. would view as "provocative" any moves to "significantly increase the physical size or functionality of disputed features, or to militarize them."
Associated Press writers Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines, and Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.