NAYPYIDAW - Security talks between Asian and global powers on Sunday are set to focus pressure on China's maritime ambitions as the US seeks to dampen regional tensions over competing claims to strategic waters.
US Secretary of State John Kerry is pushing for an agreement to end all acts that risk further inflaming relations between Beijing and its Southeast Asian neighbors, following several flashpoints in the contested South China Sea this year.
Washington's top diplomat is touring the region despite a slew of major international crises in other parts of the world as the US looks to reinvigorate alliances in the Asia-Pacific as part of President Barack Obama's "pivot" east.
Observers say sea disputes will dominate the ASEAN Regional Forum in Myanmar's capital Naypyidaw later Sunday, which brings together Southeast Asian foreign ministers and key partners, including the US, Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the European Union.
"In the meeting they will talk about the regional situation in the South China Sea," Koichi Mizushima, deputy press secretary at the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs told AFP.
Kerry on Saturday formally put forward Washington's proposal to cool maritime tensions based on claimant states agreeing to step back from actions that could "complicate or escalate disputes".
The US waded in to the South China Sea row following a series of maritime incidents between China and rival claimants, including Beijing's positioning of an oil rig in waters also claimed by Vietnam.
While the US is looking to reassure its Southeast Asian allies, state department officials have insisted that there would be no "showdown" between the two world superpowers.
China claims sovereignty over almost the entire sea which is also believed to be rich in mineral and oil deposits.
But its claims overlap with ASEAN states Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, as well as Taiwan.
- North Korea issue -
Ahead of the security forum Kerry seized the chance to reassure regional allies Japan and South Korea over the US commitment on a range of other security concerns, particularly over nuclear-armed North Korea.
"We have a great deal to talk about with respect to the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) and the security issues in the region," Kerry said in a meeting with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts on Sunday, after the two Asian neighbors held rare bilateral talks.
The US has called on isolated Pyongyang to release two American citizens facing trial in North Korea and urged its nationals to avoid travel to the reclusive state.
Pyongyang has also sent its foreign minister Ri Su Yong to attend the Southeast Asian meetings.
But the festering South China Sea dispute is leading Sunday's agenda.
While China says it is not the aggressor in the disputed waters, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Saturday warned that "the Chinese side is bound to make clear and firm reactions" if provoked.
Wang held a bilateral meeting with his American counterpart on Saturday, which started awkwardly after late-running meetings meant Kerry kept Beijing's top diplomat waiting for around half an hour.
In a statement released by the Chinese embassy in Myanmar following the talks, Beijing welcomed "the constructive role" played by the US in regional affairs, adding that it "hopes that the US can respect China's legitimate rights and interests in this region".
In May relations between China and Vietnam sank to their lowest point in decades after Beijing moved a deep-sea oil rig into disputed waters near the Paracel Islands, triggering deadly anti-China riots in Vietnam.
Beijing has since removed the rig, in a move that analysts say was aimed at deflecting accusations of aggression.
The 10-member ASEAN bloc said it was "seriously concerned" over the maritime disputes, in a finalized statement by foreign ministers released early Sunday.