China appeared to rebuff pressure from the United States to rein in its assertive actions in the South China Sea on Sunday as Southeast Asian nations declined to overtly back Washington's proposal for a freeze on provocative acts.
The lack of progress in resolving the maritime tensions at Asia's highest-profile diplomatic meeting so far this year shows the tough task Washington faces in persuading smaller Asian nations to risk antagonizing the region's rising power.
Foreign ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) released a statement expressing concern over "increased tensions" and called for stepped-up talks with China, in what U.S. officials said was a setback for Beijing's efforts to play down the disputes.
But there was no specific mention of China, and ASEAN only "noted" a formal three-point plan submitted by U.S. ally the Philippines for a moratorium on destabilizing actions.
The rancor over the disputed sea has split ASEAN, with several states including some of the claimant nations reluctant to jeopardize rising trade and investment ties with China. Beijing has been able to use its influence to block regional action on the maritime issue, most notably in 2012 when an ASEAN meeting chaired by Chinese ally Cambodia broke down in acrimony.
"We urged all parties concerned to exercise self-restraint and avoid actions which would complicate the situation and undermine peace, stability, and security in the South China Sea," ASEAN said in a communique following its meeting this weekend in the Myanmar capital Naypyitaw.
Their meeting was part of the ASEAN Regional Forum, which brings together 27 countries including China, Russia, Japan, India and Australia.
Sea tensions spiked in May when China parked a giant oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam. The U.S. and Philippine proposals aimed to prevent such actions, as well as building and land reclamation work on disputed islands being carried out by China and other claimants.
A senior U.S. official said ASEAN countries' concern over China's maritime actions was at an "all-time high" based on private conversations, although their public statements were more guarded to avoid antagonizing China.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he was satisfied with the communique.