U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says he is concerned about the possibility of further conflicts resulting from rising tensions in disputed Asian waters.
Hagel's comments appeared in the prepared remarks of a speech given Thursday to a gathering of Asian defense ministers at a Brunei resort overlooking the South China Sea, where several ASEAN members have overlapping claims with China.
The Pentagon chief said actions at sea "to advance territorial claims" are not effective, and "increase the risk of confrontation, undermine regional stability and dim the prospects for diplomacy."
Several ASEAN nations have accused China and its rapidly advancing military of using increasingly aggressive tactics in defending its claims to the energy-rich, strategic area.
The U.S. has said it does not take sides in the disputes, but has strengthened military cooperation with several nations there, most notably Vietnam and the Philippines.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told the ASEAN meeting Thursday that the South China Sea is "stable," and that there should be no concern about freedom of navigation in the area, an issue that has been repeatedly raised by Washington.
The territorial disputes were expected to top the agenda at the two-day ASEAN Defense Ministers' Meeting-Plus, which also brought together top defense officials from Japan, South Korea and other regional powers.
Analysts did not expect a breakthrough on the maritime standoffs, as China has been reluctant to even discuss the issue at such meetings. It instead prefers to deal with each rival claimant separately, a position that gives it a much greater advantage.
A Thursday editorial in the Global Times, China's Communist Party's official mouthpiece, said the ASEAN meeting is not the appropriate place to resolve maritime disputes.
ASEAN foreign ministers have been pushing for China to work towards signing a binding Code of Conduct to help prevent conflict in the territorial disputes. China has shown little interest in doing so, but recently promised to discuss the matter with ASEAN later in the year.
Brunei, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam and Malaysia are embroiled in territorial disputes with China over several resource-rich islands in the South China Sea. Japan and China are engaged in a separate dispute in the East China Sea.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations consists of Singapore, Brunei, Cambodia, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, and Laos.
The ADMM-Plus will help lay the groundwork for October's East Asian Summit, which will be attended by world leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama.