By Lesley Wroughton and Stuart Grudgings
BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry pressed China and Southeast Asian nations on Monday to make progress on a plan to ease tensions in the South China Sea, reminding the region that Washington had national interests at stake in the disputes.
Kerry, who made the comments as he arrived in Brunei for a regional security meeting, was speaking a day after China said it would hold formal discussions with Southeast Asian nations over the maritime disputes later this year.
While marking a move forward, the talks are not seen as a major breakthrough in protracted efforts to bring China into a binding agreement over the energy-rich ocean, where Beijing's assertive claims have sparked rising tensions.
"We have a strong interest in the manner in which the disputes of the South China Sea are addressed, and in the conduct of the parties," Kerry said in opening remarks at the conference in the oil-rich sultanate.
"We very much hope to see progress soon on a substantive code of conduct in order to help ensure stability in this vital region."
China said in a joint statement with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Sunday that it agreed to hold "official consultations" on a proposed Code of Conduct (CoC) governing naval actions at a meeting with ASEAN senior officials in China in September. Thailand's foreign minister hailed the step as "very significant".
China, accused by the Philippines on Sunday of causing "increasing militarization" of the sea, stopped short of saying that the meeting would mark the start of actual negotiations.
China has shown little urgency in initiating substantial talks over the proposed code.
CHINESE NAVAL STRENGTH
Critics say it is intent on cementing its claims over the sea through its superior naval might over ASEAN nations. Four members of the group have claims that compete with Chinese assertions.
Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, said the talks were an encouraging sign that China was finally willing to talk about the code with ASEAN. But it was not, he said, a very significant step forward.
"Given China's obvious lack of enthusiasm for a formal and effective code, Chinese officials are likely to draw out the talks for as long as possible," he said.
He said China was also likely to work to ensure the final agreement does not prevent it from asserting its territorial claims.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stressed that any progress on agreeing the new framework would depend on countries following a confidence-building "declaration of conduct" agreed in 2002. Beijing and the Philippines accuse each other of violating that declaration.
Philippine Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario gave a lukewarm response late on Sunday when asked about the significance of the proposed talks.
"The agreement was that there will be a process that will be started with a meeting in China...I'd like to believe that China is in earnest in terms of moving forward in this process."
Naval standoffs and clashes between the Philippines, Vietnam and China since last year have sharply raised tensions over the sea at a time when the United States is shifting its military attention and resources back to Asia.
In his opening remarks, Kerry attempted to ease concerns in Beijing that the U.S. rebalancing of forces to Asia was aimed at countering China's rising power.
"We have many goals. We have economic and security interests. But I want to emphasize, importantly, our actions are not intended to contain or to counterbalance any one country," Kerry said.
(Additional reporting by Manuel Mogato; writing by Stuart Grudgings; Editing by Ron Popeski)