China has agreed to hold formal talks with Southeast Asian nations on a plan to ease maritime tensions as the Philippines accused it of causing "increasing militarisation" of the South China Sea, one of Asia's naval flashpoints.
The rebuke by Philippine Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario yesterday at a regional summit in Brunei came a day after China's state media warned of an inevitable "counterstrike" against the Philippines if it continued to provoke Beijing.
Friction between China and the Philippines over disputed territories has surged since last year due to several naval stand-offs as China asserts its vast claims over the oil and gas rich sea.
The heated rhetoric came as both China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) claimed progress in efforts to agree to a mechanism aimed at defusing naval tensions.
China agreed to hold "official consultations" on a proposed Code of Conduct (CoC) governing naval actions at a meeting with Asean in China planned for September, a step that Thailand's foreign minister hailed as "very significant".
The two sides had already agreed to hold the foreign ministers' meeting, which will follow a special Asean ministers' gathering on the South China Sea issue in Thailand in August.
"We agreed to maritime co-operation to make our surrounding sea a sea of peace, friendship and co-operation," Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in Brunei.
But Wang stressed that any progress on the new framework would be dependent on countries following a confidence-building "declaration of conduct" agreed in 2002 which it accuses the Philippines of violating.
"Both China and other coastal states in the South China Sea are making efforts for a stable South China Sea. I believe any activity taken by individual claimant countries to go against the trend will not enjoy the support of the majority of countries and will not succeed either," Wang said.
In the latest stand-off, the Philippines accused China of encroaching on its territory after three Chinese ships converged just 9 kilometre from a small reef where the Philippines maintains a small military force.
Last month the Philippines moved more troops and supplies to the reef, which is within its 370 kilometre economic exclusion zone. China, which does not recognise the zone, condemned it as an "illegal occupation".
Del Rosario said the "massive" presence of Chinese military and paramilitary ships at the Second Thomas shoal and at another reef called the Scarborough Shoal was a threat to regional peace.
"The statement on counterstrike is an irresponsible one. We condemn any threats of use of force," Del Rosario told reporters following a meeting of Asean foreign ministers. He said the ministers had discussed China's ongoing "illegal" occupation of the Scarborough Shoal, which China calls Huangyan Island.