China will act assertively at a regional meeting to discuss a code of conduct for the South China Sea amid rising tensions with its Southeast Asian neighbours over disputed waters, observers say.
While Beijing would seek to establish such guidelines on maritime conduct during the two-day meeting that started in Bali, Indonesia, yesterday, it will also signal to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) that territorial interests would be its top priority.
The meeting will be the 11th time China and Asean have negotiated on a binding set of rules to inform engagements in the contested area.
China has been more willing to negotiate for such a code since September, when Beijing and Asean diplomats held their first consultation in Suzhou. But the recent spat between Beijing and Hanoi and Manila will complicate the negotiations.
Zhang Mingliang , an expert in Southeast Asian affairs at Jinan University in Guangzhou, said China was expected to send a message to its neighbours.
"China is determined to defend its territorial integrity, and this has become the first priority," he said. But "China will resolve the dispute through peaceful negotiations".
The talks in Bali come after China and Vietnam locked horns recently over the establishment of a Chinese oil rig around the disputed Paracel Islands, which triggered deadly anti-China riots in Vietnam.
In the Philippines, Manila accused Beijing of reclamation activity at the Johnson South Reef in the Spratly Islands.
Zhang Jie, an expert on regional security with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said China's tough posture would linger because Beijing believed its neighbours had not respected its stance over the disputed waters.
Beijing has previously said nations involved in spats should set aside their differences to seek joint development. That directive will remain unchanged, Zhang said, but Beijing would become increasingly active in the waters.
"By showing strength, it is hoped that the claimant states of the South China Sea will be pushed to pay serious attention to Beijing's position," she said. "There is a perception inside China that maintaining a low profile, which has been the directive for Chinese diplomacy for years, will necessarily be beneficial to China."
Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the S. Rajartnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said Vietnam and the Philippines might draw support from other Asean states to try to restrict movement of Chinese vessels in the disputed waters, which Beijing may brush aside.
"China on one hand will be proactive in pursuing the code of conduct, but on the other hand will also be uncompromising," he said. "The code is only one part of China's dealing in the South China Sea."
Kang Lin, a researcher at China's National Institute for South China Sea Studies, said Beijing would also push for cooperation on navigation security.
"It may not be an appropriate timing to discuss exploration of resources in the waters, but the nations can discuss less sensitive issues, paving the way for more future cooperation," he said.