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India on Thursday supported the stand taken by some South-East Asian nations that have called for freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, where China is locked in maritime disputes with many of its neighbours.

In his remarks at the fifth East Asia Summit foreign ministers’ meeting in Kuala Lumpur, junior foreign minister V.K. Singh warned that “in a world of inter-dependence and globalization, there is no option but to follow international laws and norms".

India supported the “freedom of navigation in international waters, including the South China Sea, the right of passage and overflight, unimpeded commerce and access to resources in accordance with principles of international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

“Territorial disputes must be settled through peaceful means, as was done by India and Bangladesh recently using the mechanisms provided under UNCLOS," Singh said.

“India hopes that all parties to the disputes in the South China Sea will abide by the guidelines on the implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. We further support efforts for the early adoption of a Code of Conduct on the South China Sea on the basis of consensus," he added.

Singh’s comments follow China sparking alarm among its smaller neighbours in South-East Asia by expanding reefs, constructing military posts, and blocking vessels straying into what it claims are its territorial waters. China claims almost all of the South China Sea; Vietnam and the Philippines are contesting those claims.

According to an AFP report, South-East Asian nations were squabbling over a joint statement to be issued on tensions in the South China Sea, with China’s allies opposing strong criticism of its land-reclamation activities.

The Philippines and Vietnam in particular were pushing for stronger language on Chinese land reclamation, which could help shore up Beijing’s disputed territorial claims, but China was backed by nations such as Laos and Cambodia, part of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

India’s position is not new but assumes importance given that some Asean members, such as the Philippines, have been calling on it to make its presence felt within the region against the backdrop of an assertive China.

In India last month for talks with officials, Philippines foreign secretary Evan Garcia urged India to play a more prominent role in Asia as he warned of attempts being made by powers in the region to keep India out of discussions relating to the security architecture in South-East Asia and the Asia-Pacific.

Though he did not name any nation, Garcia’s reference seemed to be to China, with which the Philippines has had some tensions in recent months. In recent years, China has been wary of India’s inroads into the region it considers its backyard. China has expressed its annoyance at India prospecting for energy in waters off Vietnam’s coast. In 2011, an Indian naval ship was reportedly confronted by a Chinese naval vessel in the same area. India denied the incident.

Of late, India has scaled up its engagement with Asean and its members.

On Thursday, Singh described the Asia-Pacific region and its oceans as “a critical enabler of our prosperity and of our growing interdependence" while pointing to other threats to freedom of navigation.

“Maritime security remains under threat from non-state actors such as terrorists, pirates and people smugglers. Incidents of piracy have gone up in recent months and we can see that developments in coastal and island states can have an impact on security on the seas. In addition, sovereignty disputes have the potential for undermining maritime security and mutual confidence," he said.

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