BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, Brunei Southeast Asian nations stepped up efforts on Thursday to engage China in talks to resolve maritime tensions, agreeing to meet to try to reach common ground on disputed areas of the South China Sea ahead of planned discussions in Beijing later this year.
Efforts by ASEAN to craft a code of conduct to manage South China Sea tensions all but collapsed last year at a summit chaired by Cambodia, a close economic ally of China, when the group failed to issue a closing statement for the first time.
Cambodia was accused of trying to keep the issue off the agenda despite a surge in tension over disputed areas and growing concern about China's assertive stance in enforcing its claims over a vast, potentially energy-rich sea area.
Thursday's initiative came as the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) tried to patch up differences that shook the group last year, but struggled to make progress on long-held plans to agree on a dispute-management mechanism.
Thailand, which has the role of ASEAN coordinator with China, called for the talks ahead of an ASEAN-China meeting expected in August to commemorate 10 years since they formed a "strategic partnership".
ASEAN Secretary-General Le Luong Minh told reporters that ASEAN would approach China with a common stance.
"When we come to our partners to discuss important issues, we come as a group and we come with one common position," he said, adding that the next move would be to get China to participate in the negotiations.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea as its territory, setting it directly against U.S. allies Vietnam and the Philippines, while Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia also claim parts.
China insists on resolving sovereignty disputes on a bilateral basis. It has flexed its growing "blue water" naval muscle by occupying some areas claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines, leading to a rise in tension.
Without mentioning Cambodia, Philippine President Benigno Aquino drew a strong contrast with last year's discussions.
He described as "beautiful" the fact that Brunei had brought up the South China Sea issue as the first subject.
"We should really be thankful that the whole of ASEAN is willing to discuss this instead of putting it on the back burner," Aquino told reporters.
The tiny oil kingdom of Brunei, in marked contrast to Cambodia, it is keeping the maritime issue high on the agenda.
"WORK WITH CHINA"
But prospects for a legally binding code of conduct appear dim. The summit-concluding communique on Thursday made no new announcement, but said ASEAN ministers had been tasked to "work actively with China" for a conclusion of the proposed agreement.
A U.S. move to rebalance its military forces to focus more on Asia has threatened to worsen tension, reinforcing China's fears of encirclement.
China has had a permanent naval presence for a year at the Scarborough Shoal, a rich fishing ground 124 nautical miles (230 km) off the Philippines north-western coast.
Last month, it sent four warships to land troops on its southernmost claim - the James Shoal, 80 km (50 miles) off the Malaysian coast and close to Brunei.
Tensions are likely to rise again in coming months, as monsoon weather eases and China imposes a unilateral annual fishing ban that has irritated Vietnam and the Philippines.
Frustrated with the slow pace of regional diplomacy, the Philippines in January angered China by asking a United Nations tribunal to order a halt to Beijing's activities, such as those at Scarborough Shoal, that it said violated its sovereignty.
The Philippines appeared to win backing for that approach in Brunei, despite concern that it could be used by China as a reason to further delay talks on a code of conduct.
(Writing by Stuart Grudgings; Editing by Nick Macfie)