JAKARTA- U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry increased diplomatic pressure on China on Monday to resolve maritime disputes with Southeast Asia based on international legal principles, rather than through individual deals as Beijing prefers.
Speaking in Jakarta, Kerry said the stability of the Asia-Pacific depended on achieving a binding code of conduct to help nations peacefully address competing claims in the South China Sea and to avoid conflict in one of the world's most strategically important waterways.
The United States has been increasingly uneasy at what it sees as China's effort to gain creeping control over waters in the Asia-Pacific, including its Nov. 23 declaration of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in an area of the East China Sea that includes islands at the centre of a dispute with Japan.
"It's not an exaggeration to say that the region's future stability will depend in part on the success and the timeliness of the effort to produce a code of conduct," Kerry told a news conference in the Indonesian capital during a trip to Asia and the Middle East.
"The longer the process takes, the longer tensions will simmer and the greater the chance of a miscalculation by somebody that could trigger a conflict. That is in nobody's interest."
China claims about 90 percent of the 3.5 million square km (1.35 million square mile) South China Sea, depicting what it sees as its area on maps with a so-called nine-dash line, looping far out over the sea from south China.
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also have claims over the South China Sea, or parts of it.
At stake is control over what are believed to be significant reserves of oil and gas. Estimates for proven and undiscovered oil reserves in the entire sea range from 28 billion barrels of oil, to as high as 213 billion, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said in a March 2008 report.
Kerry's comments follow stepped-up efforts by the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) grouping to persuade a reluctant China to agree to a legally binding code of conduct in the congested waters that stretch from off China's south coast to the east of mainland Southeast Asia.
Kerry added that negotiations on a Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal would continue and he believed the U.S. Congress would come to an appropriate conclusion on the trade talks.