China urged "direct" talks with Southeast Asian nations Thursday to resolve overlapping maritime disputes, a day after regional leaders pledged to work towards easing tensions.
China and several Asian countries have rival claims to uninhabited islands in the South China Sea, which is believed to be rich in hydrocarbons and straddles strategic shipping lanes vital to global trade.
Leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations on Wednesday stressed the importance of a decade-old declaration on the conduct of the parties (DOC), pledging to promote peace in the disputed area.
China did not participate in that meeting, but is a signatory of the DOC agreement.
"Formulating a code of conduct on the South China Sea... should be reached through direct negotiations between China and ASEAN countries," foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a regular news briefing in Beijing.
Cambodia is eager to bring its diplomatic ally China into the drafting process for the code of conduct, but the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam say the bloc should draft it themselves before presenting it to Beijing.
Hong said that the dispute should be resolved peacefully among the countries involved and suggested a regional organisation like ASEAN should not take a stance on the dispute.
US naval commanders have repeatedly said they are concerned about minor incidents, such as recent clashes over fishing rights and energy exploration near the islands, blowing up into major regional conflicts.
Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Cambodia on the eve of the summit in what many analysts took to be a form of pressure on Phnom Penh to use its ASEAN chairmanship to slow down the South China Sea negotiations.
Analysts say ASEAN is paralysed by differences over how to deal with regional superpower China's claims.
Source: AFP Asian Edition