PHNOM PENH - Southeast Asian states want a UN maritime convention to be the basis for settling competing claims in the South China Sea, a draft document agreed by foreign ministers showed on Tuesday.
The position of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is likely to meet resistance from China, however, which favours settling maritime disputes in the regional hotspot bilaterally.
Southeast Asian foreign ministers are meeting in Cambodia to draw up a long-delayed code of conduct to be signed by them and China aimed at easing friction in the South China Sea.
The draft document outlining ASEAN's position, which was seen by AFP, called on all sides to "undertake to resolve territorial... disputes in the (South China Sea) by peaceful means in accordance with international law, including UNCLOS".
UNCLOS is the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, an international treaty that sets limits on how much of neighbouring seas a nation can consider as their territorial waters or exclusive economic zone.
China is a signatory to UNCLOS, but experts say its claim of essentially all of the South China Sea, home to vital shipping lanes and believed to be rich in oil and gas deposits, would fail under its provisions.
Taiwan and ASEAN members the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia all make rival claims on areas of the sea, where tensions recently mounted.
The draft ASEAN document calls on all parties to resolve disputes "without resorting to the use of force or the threat to use force" and to "commit to respect freedom of navigation and overflights".
ASEAN is proposing that all sides attempt to settle disputes first within the framework of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, an ASEAN-centred pact that also bans the use of force to settle disputes.
Failing that, parties may resort to the "dispute-settlement mechanism provided in international law including UNCLOS", according to the draft, which also calls for cooperative activities to build trust and confidence.
China on Monday said it was willing to discuss the code with ASEAN "when conditions are ripe" but insisted that any potential pact must not be used to resolve rival claims.
"The (code of conduct) is not aimed at resolving disputes, but aimed at building mutual trust and deepening cooperation," China's foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin told reporters in Beijing.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun, associate professor at Kyoto University's Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, said ASEAN members are resisting the idea of settling territorial claims bilaterally.
"This is because they feel that they will not have enough bargaining power in dealing with a bigger China," he told AFP.
Regional tensions have risen recently, with both Vietnam and the Philippines accusing Beijing of aggressive behavior in the South China Sea.
© 1994-2012 Agence France-Presse