China’s defence minister pledged to work with Southeast Asian nations to safeguard peace and stability in the South China Sea , ahead of talks with 17 regional counterparts, including from the US, on Thursday. General Wei Fenghe made the remarks in a virtual meeting with defence chiefs from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on Wednesday, in an apparent bid to stabilise relations with China’s neighbours as its rivalry with the US intensifies over the disputed waters. Beijing has been pushing to finalise negotiations with the 10 Asean members over a code of conduct in the South China Sea that began in 2002 but have stalled over China’s insistence that the US be excluded. “China is ready to work with Asean to build a closer community with a shared future between the two sides,” Wei said in the talks on Wednesday, according to state news agency Xinhua. Thursday’s meeting of Asean members and eight other nations was the first encounter between Wei and acting US Secretary of Defence Christopher Miller, who was appointed last month after President Donald Trump’s election defeat. Military cooperation, the coronavirus response and the South China Sea dispute were expected to dominate the talks, with defence officials from Japan, Australia, India and Russia also attending. Asean has gained prominence in Beijing’s diplomatic agenda this year, especially in the midst of intense competition for regional dominance between China and the US. Yang Jiechi, President Xi Jinping’s top foreign policy aide, said in Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily last week that shoring up ties with China’s neighbours would be a focus for post-pandemic diplomacy, along with managing relations with the US. South China Sea: the dispute that could start a military conflict State-controlled tabloid Global Times reported earlier that Beijing was preparing for Trump’s “final act of the madness” before president-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated next month, referring to potential actions by the outgoing US leader to fuel tensions with China. The Trump administration has also stepped up economic and military cooperation with Southeast Asian countries as it seeks to build an international coalition to challenge China’s expansive claims to the South China Sea. Washington has publicly voiced support for China’s rival claimants to the resource-rich waterway, including Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia. Miller visited the Philippines and Indonesia this week before having a separate virtual meeting with his Asean counterparts on Wednesday. The US defence chief angered Beijing with an opinion piece in the Philippine Star on Monday, accusing China of exploiting other countries’ vulnerabilities in the coronavirus pandemic to advance its interests in the maritime dispute. China’s ambassador to the Philippines dismissed the allegation and hit out at Washington’s “provocative actions”. The spat comes after Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana urged regional countries to unite and take a common approach on the issue two weeks ago. He said tensions would rise in the South China Sea because of the US-China rivalry, which he argued could be kept in check if Southeast Asian nations took a united stand to influence the status quo.