John Kerry presses China, neighbours on maritime issues

John KerryJohn Kerry will urge all countries to cool tensions over territorial disputes in the South China Sea. (AP)

US Secretary of State John Kerry is in Brunei for meetings with top officials from China and its smaller Southeast Asian neighbours, in which he will urge all countries to cool tensions over territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Kerry will make the case in Wednesday's discussions with China's prime minister and the leaders of the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. US officials said Kerry would call on the Chinese to accept a binding code of conduct to govern maritime behaviour until disputes with the ASEAN states are resolved.

Kerry is filling in at the summit for President Barack Obama, who had to cancel his participation due to the government shutdown in Washington.

One senior official traveling with Kerry said he would be encouraging the ASEAN countries to continue to work "for enhanced coherence and unity" among themselves to bolster their position with China in negotiating a code of conduct.

China has bristled at what it sees as US interference in its backyard and has only reluctantly agreed to open consultations with ASEAN on a code of conduct. It has also lobbied some ASEAN members hard to prevent a consensus on the matter.

The US weighed in on the issue during Obama's first term, when Washington announced it had a national security interest in keeping the world's busiest commercial sea lanes open and peacefully resolving competing territorial claims based on freedom of navigation.

The US official said the United States and ASEAN are now in "violent agreement" on the principles of freedom of navigation and negotiated settlements to the territorial disputes.

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