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China, Southeast Asia to set up hotline for South China Sea issues

[KUALA LUMPUR] China and Southeast Asian nations have agreed to set up a foreign ministers' hotline to tackle emergencies in the disputed South China Sea, a senior official of the Asean grouping told Reuters on Friday.

China claims most of the potentially energy-rich sea, through which US$5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year, and rejects the rival claims of Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.

With the region having become Asia's biggest potential military flashpoint, the United States has urged claimants to settle differences through talks, saying its Pacific Fleet aims to protect sea lanes critical to US trade.

But China rejects US involvement in the dispute, and its more assertive approach recently, including land reclamation and construction on disputed reefs, has stirred tension.

The hotline will be announced at next week's meeting of foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, said the senior Asean official, who has knowledge of the discussions.

"The hotline is likely to be announced in a joint statement at the end of the meetings," said the official, who declined to be identified because the talks were private.

The foreign ministers' hotline will be the first involving China, although the Philippines and Vietnam have had a naval hotline since last year to monitor the disputed waters.

Southeast Asian leaders hope the emergency hotline will help defuse the tension provoked over naval encounters and China's claims, the official said.

Tuesday's meeting is to be attended by the Chinese foreign ministers and US Secretary of State John Kerry, with other Asian powers, including India and Japan, also taking part.

Ahead of the meeting, regional officials will hold preparatory talks in Malaysia, starting from Saturday.

A Philippine diplomat welcomed the hotline as a way to avoid accidents and miscalculations.

"The Philippines welcomes any confidence-building measure that would promote peace and stability and reduce tension in the region," the diplomat said.

But it was more important to take action to fully implement and strengthen a 2012 pact, the Declaration of Conduct of Parties, the diplomat added, however.

The code of conduct, signed by Asean and China in 2002, commits the signatories to exercise "self-restraint" in activities that could escalate disputes.

Ramping up the rhetoric ahead of the talks in Malaysia, China's Defence Ministry accused the United States of "militarising" the South China Sea with patrols and joint military drills staged there.