U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will urge Southeast Asian nations in meetings in Laos next week to find diplomatic ways to launch talks with China on easing tension over the South China Sea following an international court ruling that denies China's claims in the sea.
Kerry travels to Laos' capital Vientiane on Monday for meetings of foreign ministers from the 10-member Association of South East Asia Nations where tensions between China and several ASEAN members, in particular the Philippines and Vietnam, over the South China Sea is expected to dominate talks.
"The Secretary will reinforce our hope that ... the parties will now turn to constructively engaging in a effort to find diplomatic ways to peacefully interact in the South China Sea," a senior U.S. official told reporters ahead of the trip.
The annual ASEAN gathering follows a July 12 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in a claim brought by the Philippines that China has no historic title over the waters of the South China Sea.
China has angrily rejected the verdict and pledged to pursue claims that conflict with those of several smaller neighbours. China has also blamed the United States for stirring up trouble in the South China Sea, a vital waterway through which more than US$5 trillion of trade moves annually.
Citing international rules, the United States has conducted freedom-of-navigation patrols close to Chinese-held islands where China has been bolstering its military presence, which has exacerbated tensions.
The U.S. official said it was important that ASEAN members "speak out and represent what common ground they found on issues", including the South China Sea, as they prepare a joint statement for the end of the meeting.
The official added: "I'd put a little more value on the conversation that happens among the ministers themselves than I do in the often lengthy and torturous prose that is pulled together by the staff afterwards."