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China vowed Tuesday to strengthen defense and security cooperation with ASEAN countries and seek peaceful solutions to territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Defense Minister Gen. Chang Wanquan made the pledge during a meeting with his counterparts from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations on the second day of a two-day ASEAN defense ministers' meeting.
"What we need to do is to properly handle the disputes in the South China Sea, persist in seeking peaceful solutions through bilateral negotiations and consultations," Chang told his ASEAN colleagues at the meeting.
Chang, however, made no reference to the establishment of a "code of conduct" in the South China Sea, an issue on the agenda of the meeting.
In a declaration released after the meeting, the ASEAN defense ministers reiterated the regional group's determination to work out a legally binding code of conduct with China to prevent maritime conflicts in the region.
China and a number of ASEAN countries have conflicting territorial claims in the South China Sea, which is rich in fishing resources and contains potentially vast oil and gas deposits.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Indonesian counterpart Marty Natalegawa suggested during a meeting in Jakarta last Thursday that an existing ASEAN-China working group will start discussion soon on a code of conduct and setting up a group of eminent people to complement government-to-government negotiations on a code.
Disputes in the South China Sea have periodically erupted into standoffs between vessels of countries with territorial claims in the region, collisions and even naval clashes.
The Spratly Islands are claimed in whole by China, Taiwan and Vietnam, and in part by the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
ASEAN also includes Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand.
Other contested areas include the Paracel Islands, over which the navies of China and Vietnam have come to blows in the past, and Scarborough Shoal, an outcrop north of the Spratlys that is disputed by China and the Philippines.
The Philippines and Vietnam are the most vocal among ASEAN countries in demanding China forge a binding code of conduct with ASEAN to prevent clashes in disputed areas.