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MANILA, Philippines (AP) — China's top diplomat said Sunday that talks for a nonaggression pact aimed at preventing clashes from erupting in the disputed South China Sea may start this year if "outside parties" don't cause a major disruption.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the start of talks for a "code of conduct" in the disputed waters may be announced by the heads of state of China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations at their annual summit in the Philippines in November if Beijing's conditions are met.
Wang told a news conference in Manila that those conditions include non-interference by "outside parties," apparently referring to the United States, which Beijing has frequently accused of meddling in what it says is an Asian dispute that should be resolved only by the countries involved.
China's territorial disputes in the strategic and potentially oil- and gas-rich waterway with five other governments intensified after it built islands in disputed waters and reportedly started to install a missile defense system on them, alarming rival claimant states, the U.S. and other Western governments.
"If there is no major disruption from outside parties, with that as the precondition, then we will consider during the November leaders' meeting, we will jointly announce the official start of the code of conduct consultation," Wang said.
The situation in the South China Sea should also be "generally stable," he said.
"China and ASEAN have the ability to work together to maintain regional peace and stability and we will work out regional rules that we mutually agreed upon so as to open up a bright future for our future relations," he said.
A Philippine government spokesman, Robespierre Bolivar, also announced that ASEAN and Chinese ministers have approved a framework for the code and agreed on steps to start negotiations on the maritime accord. He did not mention any preconditions.
Acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Susan Thornton said countries locked in the sea disputes should halt provocative moves to foster a diplomatic resolution.
"We think all of the countries in the region should agree that while they have this diplomatic process going on that they would stop improving or expanding or militarizing any of their outposts," Thornton said.
China had long been perceived as delaying negotiations with ASEAN for the maritime code to allow it to launch and complete its land reclamations in the South China Sea without any such regulatory restrictions. Wang's mention of the vague conditions can allow China to delay or halt the planned talks for any reason.
While China has had robust economic ties with Southeast Asia, a diverse region of more than 600 million people with a combined GDP of $2.4 trillion, both have tangled for years over the territorial conflicts. Tensions flared alarmingly in recent years over China's island-building works in one of the most disputed regions, where U.S. naval and aerial patrols have challenged Beijing's claims.
ASEAN foreign ministers failed to promptly issue a joint communique after their annual gathering Saturday due to a disagreement over whether to include criticism, even indirectly, of China's increasingly assertive moves in the contested territories and the way to express concern over North Korea's intercontinental ballistic missile tests, two Southeast Asian diplomats told The Associated Press on Sunday.
In a surprise move, the ministers defied China's steadfast stance and issued a joint communique late Sunday that indirectly criticized Beijing's land reclamation and military fortifications in the disputed waters.
They also mentioned in their 46-page statement a vague reference to an international arbitration ruling last year that invalidated China's historical claims to virtually all of the strategic waterway. As in past criticisms, they did not cite China by name.
A draft communique seen by the AP days before the ministers held their annual meeting in Manila on Saturday failed to mention the sensitive criticisms, which China has opposed to be discussed in multinational forums.
A Southeast Asian diplomat said Sunday that Vietnam had pushed for stronger language despite opposition from many of the ministers, whose countries rely heavily on China for trade and investment.
The envoys said they "took note of the concerns expressed by some ministers on the land reclamations and activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region."
Although it's not an ASEAN member, China can exert its influence on allies like ASEAN member Cambodia to reject any move it deems inimical to its interests. An unwieldy bloc of democracies, monarchies and authoritarian regimes, the regional grouping decides by consensus, meaning just one member state can shoot down any proposal.
Another diplomat said Cambodia also expressed concern over the ASEAN foreign ministers' issuance of a separate statement criticizing North Korea's two ICBM tests last month.
Washington has asked countries, including the ASEAN member states, to help isolate North Korea diplomatically to force it to stop provocative acts. While China agrees with sanctions on the North, Wang, the Chinese Foreign Minister, said Sunday that they should be aimed at forcing Pyongyang to return to negotiations directed at taming its nuclear ambitions.
"Sanctions are needed, but by no means the ultimate goal," Wang, who was in Manila for the talks with the ASEAN ministers, said in a statement posted on the Chinese foreign ministry's website.
Associated Press writer Josh Lederman contributed to this report.