President Donald Trump has offered to mediate in the South China Sea disputes, while his Chinese counterpart played down concerns over Beijing’s military build-up and the prospects of war in the contested waters.
Mr Trump and Chinese president Xi Jinping spoke separately about the territorial rifts before an annual summit of South-east Asian nations that also includes the US, China and other global players.
The disputes are expected to get the spotlight at the summit, along with the North Korean nuclear threat and terrorism.
The US and China are both calling for a peaceful resolution but take contrasting positions in most other aspects of the conflict.
Unlike China, the US is not a claimant to the potentially oil-rich and busy waters, but it has declared it has a national interest in ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight and the peaceful resolution of the disputes.
Several nations back an active American military presence in the region to serve as a counterweight to China’s increasingly assertive actions, including the construction of seven man-made islands equipped with military installations.
“I’m a very good mediator and arbitrator,” Mr Trump said at a news conference with Vietnamese president Tran Dai Quang in Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, before flying to Manila for the summit of the Association of South-east Asian Nations.
Mr Trump’s offer faces major obstacles, as China has steadfastly opposed what it calls US meddling in the disputes and is unhappy about the US navy’s incursions into what Beijing considers its territorial waters in the South China Sea.
The Philippines, the head of ASEAN’s rotational chairmanship, said member states of the 10-nation bloc have to consult each other but thanked Mr Trump for the offer.
“He is the master of the art of the deal but, of course, the claimant countries have to answer as a group or individually … mediation involves all the claimants and non-claimants,” Philippine foreign secretary Alan Peter Cayetano told reporters.
Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte discussed the issue with Mr Xi during a meeting in Danang, Vietnam, where they attended the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum last week.
He said Mr Xi assured him of China’s peaceful intentions in the strategic waterway, where Beijing, the Philippines, Vietnam and three other governments have overlapping claims.
“He acknowledged that war cannot be promoted by anybody, (that) it would only mean destruction for all of us,” Mr Duterte told reporters after flying back to Manila.
“He knows that if he goes to war, everything will blow up.”
The Chinese leader, however, would not back down on Beijing’s territorial claim, Mr Duterte said.
The ASEAN summit opens on Monday under extra-tight security at a theatre and convention complex by Manila Bay.
Mr Duterte will host a gala dinner for nearly 20 world leaders, including Mr Trump, Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, Chinese premier Li Keqiang and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe.
Riot police used shields and water hoses on Sunday to push back hundreds of left-wing activists who tried to hold a protest at the US embassy and carried placards that read “Ban Trump”.
There were no immediate reports of injuries in the brief scuffle and the protesters left after burning a mock US flag.