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Hong Kong: China rebuffed a US proposal for countries to refrain from “provocative" acts in the South China Sea as growing tensions over disputed territorial claims dominated a meeting of regional foreign ministers.

“It’s no understatement that what happens here matters not just to this region and to the US but it matters to everybody in the world," US secretary of state John Kerry said on Saturday at the first day of the Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Regional Forum in Naypyitaw, Myanmar. “That’s why we’re encouraging claimant states to consider voluntarily agreeing to refrain from taking certain actions" that would lead to escalated disputes, he said.

Despite China’s clashes with the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi said that talk of rising tensions was exaggerated.

“We do not agree with such a practice, and we call for vigilance in the motives behind them," Wang said on Saturday. “Any proposal to come up with an alternative would only disrupt discussion of the code of conduct."

Confrontations between China and some of its Southeast Asian neighbors have flared in the year since China agreed to talks on a code of conduct for the South China Sea. As negotiations stalled, China continued to assert its claims with ships, an oil rig and by building structures on rocks in waters thought to be rich in oil and gas, fueling confrontations with the Philippines and Vietnam.

Sea disputes

The Barack Obama administration has been trying to shift its foreign policy focus to Asia, where it is treaty bound to protect allies such as the Philippines and Japan, which has its own simmering territorial spat with China. The US effort to mediate in the sea disputes has been criticized by China, and tensions between Wang and Kerry were apparent in Myanmar.

Wang began his press briefing with Kerry by scolding the secretary of state for keeping him waiting.

“We have been here at 4:30, waiting for you for more than half an hour," Wang said in Chinese through an interpreter, prompting an apology from Kerry.

China claims about 90% of the South China Sea under a map first published in 1947, a territory which extends hundreds of miles south from Hainan Island and takes in the Paracel Islands, which are claimed by Vietnam, and the Spratly Islands, some of which are claimed by the Philippines.

Vietnam riots

“Tensions in the South China Sea have worsened in the past few months and continue to deteriorate," Philippine foreign minister Albert Del Rosario said in an emailed statement from Manila. “All of us are seeing an increased pattern of aggressive behavior and provocative actions in the South China Sea, seriously threatening the peace, security, prosperity and stability in the region."

Deadly anti-Chinese riots broke out in Vietnam in May after China placed an oil rig off islands claimed by the country. The Philippines has tried to haul China before an UN tribunal as Chinese ships increasingly operate off its coast. China has refused to recognize the UN arbitration case.

“For the Chinese, the issue is decided and clear, they have sovereignty over most of South China Sea," said Richard Bitzinger, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “They just need to get everyone else to sign off on it. Barring acquiescence from the rest of Asean, there will be a standoff, he said."

Action plan

The broader efforts to promote trade and security at the Asean Regional Forum, a gathering of ministers from the 10 Southeast Asian nations plus foreign ministers from about two dozen other countries including the US, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, Australia and Canada, have been overshadowed by the issue of the territorial disputes.

At the gathering, the Philippines presented a Triple Action Plan, calling for disputes in the South China Sea to be resolved through arbitration within the framework of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and for a moratorium on actions that have raised tensions in the area, echoing the language used by the US

Wang called that motion premature.

“They have this triple-action plan, but they have jumped over the two steps to go directly to the third step, so they are not abiding by their own plan," Wang said.

North Korea’s nuclear program was also an issue of discussion, with Kerry meeting his Japanese and South Korean counterparts today for talks that touched on how contain North Korea’s weapons program.

“As we meet here at the second trilateral meeting, the situation on the Korean Peninsula is very uncertain and unstable because of the growing threats from North Korea," South Korean foreign minister Yun Byung-se said, including what he called the continued pursuit on nuclear weapons and missiles. “It’s the right time for us to map out our joint strategy." Bloomberg

With assistance from Ting Shi in Hong Kong, Jason Folkmanis in Ho Chi Minh City, Sharon Chen in Singapore and Sangwon Yoon in Naypyitaw.

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