ON Chinese naval charts it looks like a big red tongue. The red broken line arcs south to mark Beijing's 'historical claim' deep into the South China Sea. The line is China's own creation. It claims the Paracel Islands to the north and also the Spratlys - the key to supposedly vast oil and mineral deposits. China already has its own internationally-recognised 200-mile economic zone. But despite claims that it will use international law to settle disputes, officials are quick to say the big red line stays - and that it marks an area of 'indisputable sovereignty'. The line covers the trading routes linking Hong Kong and Japan to the Middle East and Europe, lanes plied by the bulk of the 24,000 ocean-going ships that made the territory among the world's busiest ports last year. It has been used to justify China going into Vietnamese territorial waters to hive-off rights to an oil field on behalf of China-backed Crestone, an obscure Denver oil company. To the east, it has given it cover to build armed 'fishing shelters' on the edge of Philippine territory in Mischief Reef. Despite the same waters being claimed whole, or in part, by Vietnam, Brunei, Indonesia, Taiwan, Malaysia and the Philippines, Beijing still claims complete sovereignty. Tensions are now so strained across the disputed waters that the United States has got involved, with the State Department saying US interests are best served by helping keep sea and air navigation in the area safe. Those fears were reflected last month in the week of joint naval exercises between US and Philippine forces on Palawan - the closest island to Mischief. This week the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meets in Brunei and tries to use its powers of back-room consensus to ease disputes. But some of its Foreign Ministers are already hinting at diplomatic successes over disputed waters, despite bullish comments from China. Indonesian Foreign Minister Ali Alatas, a long-time ASEAN stalwart, raised hopes, saying his counterpart Qian Qichen had said China was now willing to settle disputes using international law. ASEAN has always sought bilateral and multilateral talks, binding itself to safety in numbers against Beijing. The Philippines' new Foreign Minister Domingo Siazon Jr has gone further. He said: 'China had opened the door to possible political compromise.' But under questioning, both men conceded China had actually made no real concessions. They also gave little sign of whether they would be willing to raise the issue - against China's wishes - at the ASEAN Region Forum (ARF) tomorrow. Certainly 'no change, no concessions' is the view of senior officials among the dozens of Western and Asian diplomats now clogging Brunei, and Mr Qian's spokesman Shen Guofang agrees. 'What we have said is that international law should be the basis for any settlement,' Mr Shen said. 'But our historical claim is our historical claim and must be taken into account. 'These are our waters after all, and nobody but China cared about these waters until the 1960s. 'We don't mind if the issue is discussed widely, but when it comes to settlement and negotiation, then it must be bilateral, certainly with no role for outsiders. 'Asian countries know how to sort out these things best. 'Peaceful speedy settlements always help economic prosperity and we want this to continue. 'People should not forget that China wants peace in these waters and does not want anyone to do anything to upset that. 'We realise there are tensions and nobody should do anything to aggravate the situation.' Chinese sources have said Beijing considers the US Navy's frequent presence in the South China Seas a relic of the Cold War - and it expects to see a reduction in ship deployments. Mr Shen said Chinese buildings on Mischief Reef were merely fishermen's huts, adding nearby reefs could never support a military base. Vietnamese analysts believe that while there may be little on Mischief, China is building up a large installation within sight of Spratly Island itself. Spratly is about 200 nautical miles east of Mischief and is Vietnam's key holding in a heavily-secured 21-island group. Vietnam's islands far outnumber China's six, while the Philippines has eight and Malaysia seven. Taiwan's only island, Taiping or Sand Cay, is the largest. Its location shows just what a powder-keg the area is. In April, the Post revealed Vietnamese claims that the Taiwanese had extended beyond Sand Cay to build up an unclaimed reef within 3.5 nautical miles of a Vietnamese military base. Nowhere in the South China Sea are two powers so close, sitting at the edge of a vast atoll 80 kilometres across, in the centre of the archipelago, which is also dotted with Chinese bases. Tensions turned into violence with Taiwanese guns shelling what Vietnam claimed to be supply ships, sparking a flurry of unresolved diplomatic salvos between Hanoi and Taipei. Vietnam's strength in the area is of concern to other ASEAN states, who diplomats say have compromised to get Vietnam in the club to strengthen joint overall claims. Vietnam says it wants peace, but it is the only ASEAN member matching China's demand to the whole Spratlys chain. However, it is known to be seeking multi-party solutions. Although Vietnam has shown itself keen to jump on the ASEAN ship, Foreign Minister Nguyen Manh Cam has reaffirmed Hanoi's position. He has spoken of Vietnam's 'Eastern Sea' rather than the South China Sea. Vietnam's state press and television is filled with glossy reports of life in the Truong Sa (Spratly) archipelago, showing sailors relaxing on white beaches, and new lighthouses. One such programme documented a lonely sailor's love for a singer in a state troupe touring the bases. The chain is a key part of what Vietnam sees as what is rightfully its own. 'There seems no end to it,' one ASEAN diplomat said in Brunei. 'I don't think from what we have heard or seen here that anyone really sees the chance for even de-escalation, let alone settlements. There's been talk and claims, but no one has really moved on anything. 'The World Court is perhaps the only place to sort it out once and for all.' But that, as Mr Shen has pointed, would not be acceptable to China.