Against a backdrop of tense territorial disputes, top government officials and security experts gathered Wednesday in Manila for the opening of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' annual maritime conference.
Though the annual meeting is to focus on protecting water resources and securing regional trade routes, it comes at a sensitive time when four ASEAN members are engaged in disputes with China over parts of the South China Sea.
Philippines Vice President Jejomar Binay, whose country claims part of the contested and potentially oil-rich territory, told reporters he is optimistic that the disputes can be resolved through diplomacy.
"Isn't it that there is a new opening? Isn't it that the incoming president [of China] is saying, he is implying, that they are also supporting a peaceful and diplomatic solution to the problem? It's a rather non-confrontational statement," he said.
China's incoming president, current Vice President Xi Jinping, has said Beijing is committed to resolving the disputes peacefully. But his country has rejected multilateral negotiations, insisting the disputes be resolved between each individual claimant.
Security expert Sam Bateman, who is attending the conference, says he thinks it would be best that the sovereignty disputes be resolved through bilateral negotiations. He says China should be given a leadership role in maritime cooperation.
"Perhaps ASEAN might be prepared to concede a degree of leadership to China, in terms of fostering cooperation. And China of course, over the years, has made a number of initiatives relating to establishing cooperative regimes, but the reaction of course has been, 'No, no, let's talk about sovereignty first,' that sort of thing," said Bateman.
This week's summit, which goes until Friday, comes just ahead of next month's annual East Asia summit in Cambodia, where the maritime disputes are expected to be a primary focus.