China has insisted that the South China Sea territorial issue should not overshadow the ongoing East Asia Summit, while some ASEAN countries are pushing for the creation of a binding code of conduct to settle such disputes.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao arrived in Phnom Penh on Sunday to attend a range of meetings, including a China-ASEAN summit, a summit between ASEAN, China, Japan and South Korea and an East Asia Summit. He will then pay visits to Cambodia and Thailand.
These meetings arose as South China Sea disputes have intensified between China, the Philippines and Vietnam as well as a high-profile US pivot back to Asia.
Surin Pitsuwan, the ASEAN secretary-general, told a press briefing Saturday that he believed there was a "momentum of good will" toward establishing a rulebook for tackling South China Sea disputes.
"Senior officials have done their work on the elements that would eventually go into what we would call the code of conduct, and they have been able to revive that negotiation with the Chinese," Pitsuwan said.
Unprecedented arguments with China over bringing in the code of conduct led to the collapse of a summit of ASEAN leaders in July, preventing the issuing of a joint communique by the organization for the first time in its 45-year history.
China's Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying said Saturday that China holds an open attitude toward the code of conduct, but insists all parties must fully comply with the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.
The declaration, signed by China and ASEAN countries in 2002, stressed that parties should resolve disputes through peaceful means and exercise self-restraint in any activities that could escalate disputes.
Zhou Hongjun, a professor of international law at the East China University of Politics and Law, said that some parties have ignored the declaration and sought to occupy China's islands and reefs.
"They wouldn't even follow the declaration. How could we expect them to comply with a code of conduct?" asked Zhou.
"The dispute's resolution still has to come from direct talks with the countries involved. China and ASEAN are confident they can maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea," Fu said.
Besides Washington, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, whose country has been caught in a territorial dispute with Beijing in the East China Sea, is also set to throw his hat in the ring. According to media sources, before leaving for Phnom Penh on Sunday, Noda said Japan hopes to establish navigation rules in the South China Sea in cooperation with the US.
Zhou said that by interfering in the disputes, the US and Japan are seeking a strategic rebalance in Asia and to draw some ASEAN countries over to their side.
Cambodia's Foreign Minister Kao Kim Hourn added Saturday that there was no timeframe for the discussion of the code, the Manila Bulletin reported.
According to Pitsuwan, ASEAN countries had agreed to propose a hotline with China that would commit ministers to communicating on any maritime incidents.
Besides the South China Sea issue, economic cooperation is expected to be high on the summits' agenda, with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) to be launched on Tuesday.
The RCEP will bring ASEAN, China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand under one umbrella agreement, with a goal to lowering trade barriers across the region. The initiative is expected to help reduce dependence on exports to the US and Europe.
Lu Jianren, a researcher with the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times that the RCEP was initiated by ASEAN to counterbalance the US-dominated Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
Agencies contributed to this story