Updated: 05/11/2014 05:24 | By Agence France-Presse

Sea row dominates as ASEAN leaders meet

Leaders of Southeast Asia's regional bloc meet Sunday in a historic summit overshadowed by soaring tensions in the South China Sea and growing fears over Beijing's assertiveness in the disputed waters.

Sea row dominates as ASEAN leaders meet

Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung arrives at the international airport in Myanmar's capital Naypyidaw to attend the 24th ASEAN summit on May 10, 2014 - by Ye Aung Thu

The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is convening just days after both Vietnam and the Philippines locked horns with China in contested territory, stoking international alarm.

ASEAN foreign ministers expressed "serious concerns over the on-going developments" in a joint statement released on the eve of the summit as the bloc sought to present a unified front in dealing with the region's massive neighbour. 

The summit, hosted for the first time by Myanmar in its sprawling capital Naypyidaw, is set to be dominated by discussion of the South China Sea, which is crisscrossed by key shipping lanes and thought to contain vast energy reserves. 

Myanmar's chairmanship is the first time it has taken the helm of ASEAN, despite having been a member for 17-years, as concerns about the rights record of the former junta kept the country on the sidelines.

But reforms under a quasi-civilian regime that came to power in 2011 have burnished the country's international standing and seen the removal of most Western sanctions.

Tensions flared this week after Beijing controversially relocated a deep-water oil rig into territory also claimed by Hanoi.

The area around the drilling well has since seen several collisions between Chinese and Vietnamese ships, with the communist neighbours each blaming the other for the rise in tensions.

 - Exercise 'utmost restraint' - 

China and Vietnam, who fought a brief border war in 1979, frequently trade diplomatic barbs over oil exploration, fishing rights and the Spratly and Paracel Islands.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called on both countries to "exercise the utmost restraint" in the sea, United Nations deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said Friday.

Observers have said Beijing's decision to move the rig could have been a tit-for-tat response to a visit to the region by US President Barack Obama, who reaffirmed support for Asian allies the Philippines and Japan, which is locked in its own maritime territorial dispute with China.

Beijing claims sovereign rights to almost the whole of the South China Sea, which is believed to sit atop vast oil and gas deposits.

The Philippines and Vietnam are China's most vocal critics.

But the South China Sea is also claimed in part by ASEAN members Brunei and Malaysia as well as Taiwan.

Manila, which has asked a UN tribunal to rule on China's claims over most of the sea, also said it had detained a Chinese fishing boat in disputed territory this week.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino Saturday urged fellow Southeast Asian leaders to face up to the threat posed by China's increasing assertiveness in the sea, stressing that it affected regional "security".

Beijing prefers to negotiate directly with its smaller, weaker neighbours on a bilateral basis, a policy that is rejected by its rivals.

The other ASEAN members are Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand.

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