NAYPYITAW (Reuters) - China appeared to rebuff pressure from the United States to rein in its assertive actions in the South China Sea on Sunday as Southeast Asian nations declined to overtly back Washington's proposal for a freeze on provocative acts.
The lack of progress in resolving the maritime tensions at Asia's highest-profile diplomatic meeting so far this year shows the tough task Washington faces in persuading smaller Asian nations to risk antagonizing the region's rising power.
Foreign ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) released a statement expressing concern over "increased tensions" and called for stepped-up talks with China, in what U.S. officials said was a setback for Beijing's efforts to play down the disputes.
But there was no specific mention of China, and ASEAN only "noted" a formal three-point plan submitted by U.S. ally the Philippines for a moratorium on destabilizing actions.
The rancour over the disputed sea has split ASEAN, with several states including some of the claimant nations reluctant to jeopardize rising trade and investment ties with China. Beijing has been able to use its influence to block regional action on the maritime issue, most notably in 2012 when an ASEAN meeting chaired by Chinese ally Cambodia broke down in acrimony.
"We urged all parties concerned to exercise self-restraint and avoid actions which would complicate the situation and undermine peace, stability, and security in the South China Sea," ASEAN said in a communique following its meeting this weekend in the Myanmar capital Naypyitaw.
Their meeting was part of the ASEAN Regional Forum, which brings together 27 countries including China, Russia, Japan, India and Australia.
Sea tensions spiked in May when China parked a giant oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam. The U.S. and Philippine proposals aimed to prevent such actions, as well as building and land reclamation work on disputed islands being carried out by China and other claimants.
A senior U.S. official said ASEAN countries' concern over China's maritime actions was at an "all-time high" based on private conversations, although their public statements were more guarded to avoid antagonizing China.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he was satisfied with the communique.
"I think the language goes far enough," Kerry told reporters. "I think we made the points that we came to make. We were not seeking to pass something, we were trying to put something on the table that people could embrace."
CODE OF CONDUCT
The communique did call for ASEAN and China to finalize a proposed Code of Conduct to ease maritime tensions, including "concrete elements" to promote trust and confidence. They have begun talks on the code but made little substantive progress.
"This language represents a significant setback for China's efforts to play for time and change the subject," said one senior U.S. administration official.
Chinese officials were not immediately available for comment. China rejects U.S. involvement in the dispute and has already dismissed the proposal for a freeze. China accuses the United States of emboldening claimants such as the Philippines and Vietnam with its military "pivot" back to Asia.
ASEAN and China signed a trust-building agreement in 2002 called the Declaration of Conduct (DOC), committing to exercise "self-restraint" in activities that would escalate disputes, such as occupying islands and reefs or building on them. Most claimants have flouted those guidelines, leading to rising tension between four ASEAN claimant nations and China, which claims 90 percent of the waters.
The ASEAN secretary-general, Le Luong Minh, said it was wrong to assume that the group did not support the U.S. proposal, noting that China and ASEAN had committed to implement the 2002 agreement.
"This clearly shows that the essence of the proposal of the U.S. is already reflected in the DOC," Minh said.
The Philippines accused China in May of reclaiming land on the disputed Johnson South Reef and said it appeared to be building an airstrip. Taiwan is building a $100 million port next to an airstrip on the lone island it occupies in the disputed region.
As well as Johnson South Reef, a Philippine navy official told Reuters China was continuing land reclamation work on Gaven, Cuarteron and Eldad Reefs in the disputed Spratlys chain.