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China Ready to Join Talks on South China Sea

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, left, and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi pose for photos before their meeting on the sideline of the ASEAN regional forum in Phnom Penh, July 12, 2012.

PHNOM PENH – U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi met in Cambodia to discuss how best to resolve territorial disputes in the South China Sea. American officials say China is prepared to join talks about a code of conduct to manage competing claims.

Senior U.S. officials say Secretary Clinton and Foreign Minister Yang discussed the conflict in Syria and international concerns about nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea. But their talks on the sideline of the Association of South East Asian Nations were dominated by territorial disputes over the South China Sea.

China, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines all have competing claims to parts of those waters. ASEAN foreign ministers are working to develop a code of conduct to govern behavior resulting from the standoff.

U.S. officials say Foreign Minister Yang gave Secretary Clinton "a careful indication" that Beijing is willing to join a dialogue on that code of conduct in the future. That could be as soon as September, ahead of the ASEAN summit in November.

At the start of their meeting, Secretary Clinton stressed the importance of Sino-American cooperation with ASEAN members.

"It is an important signal that the United States and China not only can but will work together in Asia," she said.

Foreign Minister Yang says the two countries are building a cooperative partnership based on mutual respect and mutual benefit. He says that partnership maps the way forward for Chinese-American ties for now and for the future as Beijing and Washington continue to expand common ground, respect each other and "properly handle differences and sensitive issues."

‪In her remarks to ASEAN foreign ministers, Secretary Clinton said Washington is not taking sides on any of the disputes on maritime boundaries in the South China Sea. But she says the Obama administration does have an interest in freedom of navigation, the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law and unimpeded lawful commerce.

‬China says ASEAN is not the place to resolve these dispute because it is not about the regional forum, it is between China and some ASEAN members.

Secretary Clinton agrees that, wherever possible, territorial issues should be resolved between claimants. But, she says broader questions about conduct in disputed areas and about acceptable methods of resolving disputes should be addressed in multilateral settings such as ASEAN "because approaching them strictly bilaterally could be a recipe for confusion and even confrontation."

In a written statement, the United States and China pledged to enhance cooperation on science and technology, climate change, disaster warning and response, energy policy, forest and fisheries management, disease detection and control and wildlife protection and conservation.