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Clinton seeks regional deal to South China Sea dispute

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shared a toast with Pham Binh Minh, Vietnam’s minister of foreign affairs, at the ASEAN Gala Dinner in Phnom Penh on Thursday. During the meetings, Clinton warned that more confrontations over the South China Sea would occur if there was no cooperation.

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/GettyImages

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shared a toast with Pham Binh Minh, Vietnam’s minister of foreign affairs, at the ASEAN Gala Dinner in Phnom Penh on Thursday. During the meetings, Clinton warned that more confrontations over the South China Sea would occur if there was no cooperation.

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned on Thursday of more confrontations in the South China Sea without a region-wide solution as China rebuffed calls to expedite talks on rules for operating in disputed waters.

‘‘Issues such as freedom of navigation and lawful exploitation of maritime resources often involve a wide region,’’ Clinton told Asia-Pacific foreign ministers during a meeting in Phnom Penh. ‘‘Approaching them strictly bilaterally could be a recipe for confusion and even confrontation.’’

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On Wednesday, vice foreign minister Fu Ying said China would start talks on a legally binding code of conduct in the South China Sea ‘‘when conditions are ripe,’’ according to the official Xinhua News Agency. It warned nations this week to avoid mentioning the territorial spats with Vietnam and the Philippines at Thursday’s regional security meeting that includes envoys from 26 Asia-Pacific nations and the European Union.

Diplomatic squabbling between the United States and China escalated after Clinton’s remarks in Mongolia this week in which she criticized governments that lock up dissidents and hinder freedom of speech. On Thursday, the Communist Party’s People’s Daily newspaper blasted US ‘‘arrogance’’ in commenting on human rights and democracy in Asia.

‘‘If the US always shows up as a preacher, and always picks on democracy in Asia by standing high and looking down, or if it even wants to raise its flag to build a ‘team’ that can balance China’s development, it will ultimately make itself marginalized,’’ the editorial said.

The United States and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, after a meeting Wednesday, called for the ‘‘early conclusion’’ of a code of conduct that complies with the United Nations Law of the Sea, according to a statement. The summary of a separate meeting between ASEAN countries and Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi of China did not mention the code of conduct.

‘‘It is China’s consistent position that disputes over the sovereignty of some islands and delimitation of some waters in the South China Sea should be peacefully settled by the parties directly concerned through negotiations,’’ spokesman Zhang Jianmin told Xinhua on Wednesday. ‘‘Pending the settlement of the disputes, the parties concerned may put aside their differences and engage in joint development.’’

The Philippines and Vietnam reject China’s map of the waters as a basis for joint development and have sought a regional solution to increase their bargaining power with Asia’s biggest military spender. Clinton has urged the countries to define their territory based on the UN Law of the Seas, a move China has resisted because it may lead to a loss of some waters it now claims.

China has also clashed with Japan about a disputed island chain known as Diaoyu in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese, where both countries have sent patrol boats in recent weeks. Yang told Japanese counterpart Koichiro Gemba in Phnom Penh that he hopes Japan will appropriately handle problems in the bilateral relationship, Xinhua reported.

In a visit to Tokyo this week, Clinton sought clarity on a report that Japan’s government planned to buy the islands, prompting an angry response from China. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said he would continue to brief her on Japan’s plans, according to a State Department official.

The US interest in the South China Sea is based on the importance of freedom of navigation in the 1.2 million-square-mile body of water that links the Pacific and Indian oceans, Clinton said Thursday.

The Defense Department noted in a 2009 report that China’s growing military strength increases ‘‘Beijing’s options for military coercion to press diplomatic advantage, advance interests, or resolve disputes in its favor.’’

Chinese military spending in 2011 is more than double that of ASEAN countries combined, according to the National Bureau of Asia Research, a Washington policy group. In 1990, the two budgets were nearly equal.

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