KUALA LUMPUR - Southeast Asian foreign ministers on Friday expressed serious concern about the escalating tension in the South China Sea and called for self-restraint.
The ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations met in the Malaysian capital ahead of the leaders' summit on Saturday.
"The ministers remained seriously concerned over the ongoing developments and urged all parties to exercise self-restraint," Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said at a press conference at the end of their meeting.
"The ministers reaffirmed the importance of maintaining peace, security, stability and freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea," he added.
They wanted the "full and effective implementation" of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and to speed up the establishment of the Code of Conduct, he said.
The territorial disputes over islets in the Spratly chain in the South China Sea have often bedeviled the grouping as it spins into a power play between two superpowers, China and the United States.
The Spratlys, which are believed to hold rich oil and mineral deposits, are claimed by China, Taiwan and four ASEAN member nations -- Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
The recent massive land reclamation conducted by China on some reefs had set off alarm bells among its neighbors and tension turned a notch higher last month after the United States sent a navy destroyer close to an artificial island being built by China in the fiercely contested waters.
The United States had said it would not take sides in the territorial disputes but vowed to champion freedom of navigation in a body of water where over $5 trillion of global trade transits annually.
The South China Sea conflict is expected to be on the table when the ASEAN leaders meet, and it could also spill over to when ASEAN heads hold talks with their counterparts from eight countries in an annual process known as the East Asia Summit scheduled to take place on Sunday.
The EAS comprises ASEAN -- which groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam -- plus Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, South Korea and the United States.