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U.S. to press South China Sea freeze despite China rejection

By David Brunnstrom

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, at a meeting with Southeast Asian nations this weekend, will press for a voluntary freeze on actions aggravating territorial disputes in the South China Sea, in spite of Beijing's rejection of the idea.

Daniel Russel, the State Department's senior diplomat for the East Asia region, said ahead of Kerry's trip to the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) that the call was not new and was "not rocket science," but "common sense."

A priority for Kerry would be to lower tensions in the South China Sea, where about $5 trillion of maritime trade passes annually, and China and four members of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have rival claims.

"The regional economy is too important and too fragile for any country or any claimant to use the threat of military force or paramilitary force in retaliation, for intimidation, or as a coercive effort," Russel told a news briefing on Monday.

He said there was room for rival claimants "to take some voluntary steps, and to identify actions they find troubling if not provocative on the part of other claimants, and to offer, if everyone will agree, to renounce those kinds of actions."

Such steps could include abiding by an existing agreement not to seize unoccupied land features, or more significantly, a moratorium in land reclamation efforts, Russel said.

Earlier on Monday, China, which will also participate in the ARF meeting, rejected the idea of a freeze, saying it could build what it wanted on its South China Sea islands. China claims 90 percent of the sea, which is believed to contain oil and gas deposits and has rich fishery resources.

"What China does or doesn't do is up to the Chinese government," said Yi Xianliang, deputy head of the Chinese Foreign Ministry's Boundary and Ocean Affairs Departments.

Yi said proposals for a freeze could be seen as an attempt to undermine drawn-out efforts by China and ASEAN to reach a code of conduct for the South China Sea.

He said that if the United States had such a proposal, he had not seen it and that in any case the South China Sea was an issue for countries directly involved.

"Trust in us Asian people to use Asian means and wisdom to resolve our own problems," he said.

The Philippines has also said it will propose a freeze at the ARF meeting, as well as implementation of a code of conduct and arbitration to settle disputes.

Manila called last month for a meeting of the four ASEAN claimants - itself, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam - ahead of ARF to hammer out a common stand in dealings with China. Efforts to launch such talks since December 2012 have so far failed.

China has been increasingly assertive in pressing its territorial claims and Washington fears misunderstandings could inadvertently lead to open conflict.

Russel said Washington wanted to see accelerated efforts by ASEAN and China to agree on a code of conduct.

China's recent withdrawal of an oil rig from waters also contested by Vietnam had removed a serious irritant, he said, but it had left anger and tension and "serious questions on behalf of China's neighbors about China's long-term strategy."

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

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