KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — The Philippines on Sunday urged its fellow Southeast Asian countries to take immediate steps to halt land reclamation by China in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, warning that failure to do so will see Beijing take "de facto control" of the area.
Malaysia's foreign minister, however, said that the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations will avoid confrontation with China and continue negotiations with Beijing on a binding code of conduct that would govern behavior in the area.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers that if China's construction of artificial islands on reefs claimed by other countries is allowed to be completed, Beijing will impose its claim over more than 85 percent of the sea.
Rosario urged the grouping to "stand up" to China by urging it to halt its reclamation work, which threatened to militarize the region, infringe on rights of other states and damage the marine environment.
He warned that China, which has been dragging its foot on ASEAN's push for a code of conduct, will aim to complete its reclamation activities before it agrees to conclude the code. If this happens, he said the code will legitimize China's reclamation.
"The threats posed by these massive reclamations are real and cannot be ignored or denied," he said. "ASEAN should assert its leadership, centrality and solidarity. ASEAN must show the world that it has the resolve to act in the common interest."
China, Taiwan and ASEAN members Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei have overlapping claims in the South China Sea, which includes busy sea lanes and rich fishing grounds, and is believed to have large undersea deposits of oil and natural gas.
ASEAN has maintained a cautious stand in the dispute to avoid angering China, a key trading partner.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman told reporters that ASEAN is "very much concerned" about the reclamation, but that sending an ultimatum to China to stop work could backfire and hurt peace and stability in the region.
"It will be much appreciated if China can stop work and sit down with ASEAN countries to find a solution," he said. "ASEAN must send the right signal and make the right move. We must avoid any measures that are counterproductive either to ourselves or to China."
Officials from ASEAN nations and China are scheduled to meet in May and June to discuss the issue, he said.
The Philippines filed a case with an international arbitration tribunal in 2013 challenging China's claim.
Beijing has defended the reclamation, saying it is Chinese territory and the structures are for public service use and to support Chinese fishermen.
Anifah has said that ASEAN leaders are expected to raise concerns over Chinese land reclamation at their two-day summit starting Monday and will seek to speed up plans for the code of conduct with China.