PHNOM PENH – Southeast Asian foreign ministers sought on Saturday to heal a rift over territorial rows involving China, aiming to build unity ahead of a leaders' summit in which rights and trade will also dominate.
The hot-button South China Sea issue was one of the top items for the ministers as they held a day of talks in the Cambodian capital, following months of acrimony over how to tackle China's claims to nearly all the waters.
"We wish that we would be able to solve this problem together," Surin Pitsuwan, secretary general of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, told reporters at the start of the meeting.
"We hope that if there is anything we can do to help to build this new culture of norms... of new habits of working together we would like to help."
The foreign ministers' meeting is to pave the way for the annual ASEAN leaders' summit in Phnom Penh on Sunday, which the bloc is hoping will push forward policies on human rights and free trade.
US President Barack Obama, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and leaders from six other nations are scheduled to then join their ASEAN counterparts for the two-day East Asia Summit starting on Monday.
Some of the countries involved in the talks have seen diplomatic relations plummet this year because of a raft of maritime territorial rows, and analysts said those disputes would likely overshadow proceedings in Phnom Penh.
ASEAN members Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as Taiwan, have claims to parts of the South China Sea, home of some of the world's most important shipping lanes and believed to be rich in fossil fuels.
China insists it has sovereign rights to virtually all of the sea, and the Philippines and Vietnam have expressed concerns that their giant Asian neighbor has become increasingly aggressive this year in staking its claim.
An ASEAN foreign ministers' meeting in Phnom Penh ended in July without issuing a joint communique for the first time in the bloc's 45-year history because of divisions over how to handle the South China Sea issue.
The Philippines and Vietnam had wanted the communique to make specific reference to their disputes with China.
But Cambodia, the hosts of the talks and a close China ally, blocked the moves.
Surin said Saturday that such a public spat would not be seen this weekend.
"I don't think it's going to be confrontational, I don't think it's going to be overly contentious," he said.
But adding to the tensions, analysts said Obama was expected to raise the issue while in Phnom Penh.
Obama is likely to reiterate that the United States has a fundamental interest in freedom of navigation in the sea, while urging ASEAN and China to agree on a code of conduct for the area, according to analysts.
China has long bristled at what it perceives as US interference in the South China Sea, and was upset at last year's East Asia Summit in Indonesia when Obama succeeded in having the issue discussed there.
Chinese vice foreign minister Fu Ying warned on Saturday that China did not want a repeat and that the South China Sea should not be on the agenda at the East Asia Summit.
"Discussion of the South China Sea issue should return to the framework of China and ASEAN. Discussing the issue in other forums will interfere with the direction of cooperation," Fu said.
Meanwhile, ASEAN leaders are aiming to endorse on Sunday a declaration they say will promote human rights within their 10 countries but which has drawn widespread criticism.
More than 60 rights groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, issued a statement on Thursday urging ASEAN to revise a draft of the declaration.
ASEAN members are also aiming to kickstart negotiations in Phnom Penh over a giant free trade zone with China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.
The 16 nations account for roughly half the global population and around a third of the world's annual gross domestic product.
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