U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is backing Vietnam's efforts to resolve a dispute over mineral and fishing rights in the South China Sea. This week's summit of South East Asian nations could resolve some of the competing claims in the region.
China Marine Surveillance vessels patrol the South China Sea as part of Beijing's bid to advance sovereignty and jurisdiction over the waters - parts of which are claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei, and Malaysia.
Those competing claims top the agenda of this week's meeting of foreign ministers from the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Following talks with Vietnamese Foreign Minister Phan Binh Minh, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton backed Hanoi's diplomatic approach to the standoff.
"The United States greatly appreciates Vietnam's contributions to a collaborative, diplomatic resolution of disputes and a reduction of tensions in the South China Sea," said Clinton. "And we look to ASEAN to make rapid progress with China toward an effective code of conduct in order to ensure that as challenges arise they are managed and resolved peacefully through a consensual process in accordance with established principles of international law."
China says the regional forum is not the place to settle the maritime dispute.
"We believe the South China Sea issue is not an issue between China and the ASEAN, it is an issue between China and certain ASEAN members," explained China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Weimin. "The foreign ministerial meetings at the ASEAN forum are an important platform for relevant countries to enhance mutual trust and cooperation. It is not a proper place to discuss the South China Sea issue."
Given China's opposition, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies senior fellow Ian Storey says there is little chance of a breakthrough by ASEAN.
"China opposed discussion of the South China Sea issue and when it is raised, it is likely to react quite angrily as it has in the past. This tends to generate more heat than light on the subject," said Storey.
Vietnam is enlisting India's support in the South China Sea, since Indian investors have been active in oil and gas exploration there for decades.
"As far as the territorial disputes of different countries in this area are concerned, we believe that this dispute should be resolved by these countries through peaceful dialogue and it should be resolved as per the norms of the International law," said Indian ambassador to Vietnam Ranjit Rae.
Vietnam's National Assembly has passed a law asserting sovereignty over two South China Sea islands, a move that China's Foreign Affairs Committee says could aggravate the standoff.