PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Southeast Asian leaders decided to ask China to start formal talks "as soon as possible" on crafting a legally binding accord aimed at preventing violence over disputed South China Sea territories.
Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations made the decision Sunday during their annual summit in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan said.
The South China Sea territorial disputes, which many fear could spark Asia's next war, have overshadowed discussions at the summit, where the top agenda items included human rights and expanding an Asian free-trade area.
Four countries in the 10-member ASEAN – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam – have been locked in long-unresolved territorial rifts with China and Taiwan in the resource-rich waters, where a bulk of the world's oil and cargo passes. Since Chinese and Vietnamese naval forces engaged in deadly clashes in the region in the 1970s, the disputes have settled into an uneasy standoff.
But fresh territorial spats involving China, Vietnam and the Philippines starting last year have set off calls for ASEAN and China to turn a nonaggression accord they signed in 2002 to a stronger, legally-binding "code of conduct" aimed at discouraging aggressive acts that could lead to dangerous confrontations or accidental clashes in the busy region.
ASEAN member countries have submitted features they each want to see in such an accord and were now ready to sit as a bloc to discuss with China how the agreement could be drafted. The crucial talks could start immediately, even right after the Cambodia summit, according to Surin.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, host of this year's summit, was to convey the bloc's decision to his Chinese counterpart, Wen Jiabao, who was to join expanded ASEAN meetings in the next two days.
"They would like to see the commencement of the discussion as soon as possible because this is an issue of interest, concern and worry of the international community," Surin told reporters. "It's an issue between ASEAN and China to resolve together ... It needs two to tango."
President Barack Obama, who also is coming to Cambodia to attend the so-called East Asia Summit, an annual forum where ASEAN leaders and their counterparts from eight other nations, including China and the United States, discuss security and economic concerns. Washington has backed calls for the drafting of a South China Sea nonaggression pact.
It's unclear how China would respond, with ASEAN diplomats saying they have gotten unclear signals from Chinese officials.
Vietnam and the Philippines have separately accused China since last year of intruding into their own South China Sea islands, reefs and waters and of disrupting oil explorations. China, which claims virtually the entire South China Sea, has dismissed the accusations, saying those waters belonged to Beijing since ancient times.
China has sought one-on-one negotiations to resolve the disputes, which would be to its advantage because of its sheer size, and has objected to any effort to bring the problem to regional or international forums like ASEAN. It has also warned Washington not to get involved, but American officials have declared that the peaceful resolution of the disputes and freedom of navigation in the vast sea was in the U.S. national interest.
Obama was expected to reiterate Washington's call for a legally-binding code of conduct in the South China Sea in Cambodia.
ASEAN leaders, meanwhile, adopted a human rights declaration despite criticism that it has loopholes that could allow atrocities to continue.
ASEAN, an unwieldy collective of liberal democracies and authoritarian states, signed a document adopting the Human Rights Declaration in Phnom Penh. The nonbinding declaration calls for an end to torture, arbitrary arrests and other rights violations that have been longtime concerns in Southeast Asia, which rights activists once derisively described as being ruled by a "club of dictators."
ASEAN diplomats have called the declaration a milestone despite its imperfections, saying it will help cement democratic reforms in countries such as Myanmar, which until recently has been widely condemned for its human rights record.
Founded in 1967 as an anti-communist bloc in the Cold War era, ASEAN has taken feeble steps to address human rights concerns in the vast region of 600 million people. It adopted a charter in 2007 where it committed to uphold international law and human rights but retained a bedrock principle of not interfering in each other's internal affairs – a loophole that critics say helps member states commit abuses without consequence.
During the summit, the leaders are expected to announce the start of negotiations for an expanded free-trade area involving ASEAN member countries and six regional economic powerhouses that include China but excluding the United States, which is promoting a separate Asia-Pacific free-trade arrangement.
ASEAN leaders meanwhile agreed that implementation of an ambitious ASEAN Economic Community will be slightly delayed.
Delegates explained that the AEC will be launched at the end of 2015 rather than on Jan. 1, 2015, as originally envisioned.
The community, roughly similar to the EC, would integrate the diverse nations' economies, covering trade, investment and other measures.
Thai Foreign Minister Surapong Tovichakchaikul said the meeting's chairman, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, had proposed the later starting date, and won the approval of all members.
He said ASEAN economic ministers had agreed the implementation could begin on Jan. 1, 2015, but that the leaders agreed Sunday that much work had yet to be done. "ASEAN is more concerned about substance than the date," he said.
Associated Press writers Grant Peck and Sopheng Cheang contributed to this report.