The White House yesterday pressed Chinese President Xi Jinping to expand his non-militarization pledge to cover the entire South China Sea despite Beijing's recent military activity in the area.
Daniel Kritenbrink, senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council, spoke amid rising tensions between the two countries over China's deployment of surface-to-air missiles, radar gear, air strips and fighter jets on an islet there.
During a state visit in September, Xi insisted that "China does not intend to pursue militarization" in the Spratly Island chain - known as Nansha in Chinese.
The islands are claimed in part or whole by the Philippines, Vietnam, China, Brunei and Malaysia.
"We think it would be good if that non-militarization pledge, if he (Xi) would extend that across the entire South China Sea," Kritenbrink told a forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"We're going to encourage our Chinese friends and other countries in the region to refrain from taking steps that raise tensions."
China claims almost the whole of the area - through which a third of the world's oil passes - while several other littoral states have competing claims, as does Taiwan.
"This is an incredibly important waterway through which much of international trade flows," Kritenbrink said.
"We are concerned that China has taken a number of unilateral steps over the last several years that we think raise tensions in the region and are destabilizing."
The Asian giant is using dredgers to turn reefs and low-lying features into larger land masses for runways and other military uses to bolster its claims of sovereignty.
Earlier this week, US Pacific Command chief Admiral Harry Harris warned that China was changing the "operational landscape in the region." He has called for more flyovers and patrols.
"Short of war with the United States, China will exercise de facto control of the South China Sea," Harris said.
Kritenbrink also urged China to respect an international court's decision due later this year on Manila's dispute with Beijing over territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Kritenbrink said he expected the upcoming ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration to be "extremely important" because it will mark the outcome of a process that allows countries to use peaceful legal means to pursue disputes.
China does not recognize The Hague-based court's authority, but it has ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea at the center of the case.
"When that ruling comes out, it will be binding on both parties," Kritenbrink said.
"That will be an important moment that all of us in the region should focus on."
Meanwhile, China's recent artificial island-building and fortification of its garrison in the South China Sea is among the pressing political and security challenges that Association of Southeast Asian Nations foreign ministers will discuss when they meet in the Laotian capital of Vientiane, Asean diplomats interviewed by Kyodo News yesterday said.
One diplomat told Kyodo News that ministers from the Asean are "seriously concerned" by recent and ongoing developments in the South China Sea.
Specifically, Asean sources said the ministers will have frank discussions about the land reclamation and escalation of activities in the disputed sea, saying "these assertive moves erode trust and confidence, increase tension and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region."
In Manila, Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Charles Jose has earlier said the Philippines will focus on maritime security, adding China's construction of islands in the disputed waters has heightened tensions in the South China Sea.
"We are expressing concern over these developments, including the reported missiles on Woody Island," Jose said. "Of course all these things raise our concern and its effect on freedom of navigation, over-flight and unimpeded flow of commerce. In this meeting we will continue to express our concern with the developments in the South China Sea."
Laos, this year's Asean chairman, will issue a press statement at the end of the day-long retreat Saturday.
"There are ongoing discussions and consultations on whether to include in the press statement a line that says that ministers reaffirmed their commitment to non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of activities in the South China Sea," an official source said.
As of Thursday night, an Asean official said the draft press statement still contains paragraphs on maritime security and the South China Sea "that may or may not be there (in the final statement)."
Like in past meetings, the ministers are expected to stress the importance of maintaining peace, security, stability, and freedom of navigation in and over-flight above the South China Sea.
Asean officials said the ministers will again "emphasize the need to enhance mutual trust and confidence, exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities and avoid actions that may further complicate the situation" in the disputed sea.