- Associated Press - Monday, September 3, 2012

BRISBANE, Australia — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called Monday for Southeast Asian states to present a united front to the Chinese in dealing with territorial disputes in the South China Sea to “literally calm the waters.”

And she urged all involved to make “meaningful progress” on a process for ending conflicts by November.

In Indonesia’s capital, Mrs. Clinton offered strong U.S. support for a regionally endorsed plan to ease rising tensions by implementing a code of conduct for all claimants to disputed islands.

Jakarta is the headquarters of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), and Mrs. Clinton also pressed the group to insist that China agree to a formal mechanism to reduce short-term risks of conflict and ultimately come to final settlements over sovereignty.

“The United States has a national interest, as every country does, in the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law, freedom of navigation, unimpeded lawful commerce in the South China Sea,” Mrs. Clinton told reporters at a news conference with Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa.

“The United States does not take a position on competing territorial claims but we believe the nations of the region should work collaboratively to resolve disputes without coercion, without intimidation and certainly without the use of force,” she said.

“That is why we encourage ASEAN and China to make meaningful progress toward finalizing a comprehensive code of conduct in order to establish rules of the road and clear procedures for peacefully addressing disagreements.”

Indonesia has played a leading role in putting the six-point plan together after ASEAN was unable to reach consensus on the matter in July.

Mrs. Clinton said the U.S. is “encouraged” by the plan but wants it acted on — particularly implementation and enforcement of the code of conduct, which has languished since a preliminary framework for it was first agreed in 2002.

Mrs. Clinton said the U.S. wants to see the disputes resolved between China and ASEAN. She said the alliance has collective clout that its 10 members do not have individually, adding that the U.S. sees it as important for ASEAN and China to have something to show for their efforts by a November summit of East Asian leaders that President Obama plans to attend in Cambodia.

“It is time for diplomacy,” she said. “We have the East Asia Summit coming up. This should be the goal that diplomacy pursues to try to attain agreement on a robust code of conduct to begin and begin to try to literally calm the waters and enable people to work together toward better outcomes. I think we can make progress before the East Asia Summit and it is certainly in everyone’s interest that we do so.”

China and a host of Southeast Asian countries, including the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei, have overlapping claims to several small, but potentially energy-rich areas of the South China Sea. The U.S. position has riled China, which has become increasingly assertive in pressing its territorial claims with its smaller neighbors and wants the disputes to be resolved individually with each country, giving it greater leverage than dealing with a bloc.