Southeast Asian nations are set to press China Monday to quickly begin talks on easing tensions over maritime territorial rows that have shaken the region and overshadowed efforts to boost trade, AFP reports.
Leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have flagged they will raise the contentious South China Sea issues during a meeting with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in the Cambodian capital.
Their meeting is one of the main events scheduled on the opening day of the East Asia Summit, involving ASEAN, China, the United States, Japan, Russia, India, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
US President Barack Obama will also arrive in Phnom Penh on Monday afternoon after making a historic visit to ASEAN member Myanmar, which is undergoing a dramatic series of political reforms away from military rule.
ASEAN Secretary General Surin Pitsuwan said on Sunday that the bloc would ask China to begin formal and official talks on a legally binding code of conduct aimed at easing tensions in the South China Sea "as soon as possible".
Currently the main framework for negotiations is a non-binding 2002 pact in which the parties agreed to resolve the issues peacefully and through friendly consultations.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen raised the proposal with Wen during a bilateral meeting in Phnom Penh on Sunday night but China appeared initially to give no ground.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang told reporters after the meeting that China wanted to continue with the current framework of lower-level negotiations that were agreed on a decade ago.
"We already have good discussions with ASEAN," Qin said.
ASEAN members Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, as well as Taiwan, have claims to parts of the sea, which is home to some of the world's most important shipping lanes and believed to be rich in fossil fuels.
But China insists it has sovereign rights to virtually all of the sea.
The rival claims have for decades made the sea a powder keg issue in the region. Chinese and Vietnamese forces engaged in clashes in 1974 and 1988 in which dozens of troops died.
After a period of calm following the 2002 accord, tensions have risen over the past two years amid concerns from some ASEAN countries that China is becoming increasingly aggressive.
The tensions have led to some bruising diplomatic confrontations this year and overshadowed some regional meetings where the participants typically prefer to focus on improving economic ties.
But even with the South China Sea row still festering, trade is expected to be one of the other top issues on the agenda at the two-day East Asia Summit.
ASEAN nations are set to officially launch negotiations on Tuesday for an enormous free trade pact with China, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
The planned zone would tie together an area that currently accounts for a third of global trade and economic output.
And despite their own territorial rows, China, Japan and South Korea are likely to hold talks in Phnom Penh on Tuesday aimed at kickstarting three-way free trade negotiations, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin said.
But with relations between China and Japan going cold this year over competing claims to islands in the East China Sea, Wen and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda are not expected to hold one-on-one talks in Cambodia.