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Manila urges unity for South East Asian nations in China sea dispute

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[July 18, 2014]  MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines is pushing for a meeting among four Southeast Asian nations with conflicting claims to waters in the South China Sea so that they can hammer out a common stand in dealings with China, Manila's foreign minister said on Friday.

Manila is waging a territorial dispute with China over the Spratlys and the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, an area believed to be rich in oil and natural gas deposits as well as fisheries resources.

Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan also have claims in the sea, which is traversed each year by ship-borne trade worth about $5 trillion.

Albert del Rosario said the Philippines wanted to hold talks with Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam before foreign ministers from regional grouping the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meet for an annual conference in Myanmar next month.

"We are working towards having a possibility of claimants meeting before the ASEAN ministerial meetings," Del Rosario told reporters after talks with Thailand's acting foreign minister, Sihasak Phuangketkeow.

"We don't have any dates yet and it's a work in progress."

Del Rosario also visited Brunei, Indonesia and Vietnam early this month to drum up support for the meeting. Jakarta had a separate proposal for an ASEAN-China dialogue to defuse tension after Beijing placed an oil rig in a disputed waters in May.

China's May 2 deployment of the rig in waters claimed by Vietnam set off deadly anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam, followed by numerous ship collisions after scores of vessels from both countries regularly squared off around the platform.

China removed the oil rig this week after completing three months of exploration work. The rig's departure was welcomed by Washington, which had decried its initial deployment as a "provocative" act.

"We are certainly concerned with the situation," Thailand's Sihasak told reporters.

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"We do want to see a de-escalation of tension. We have to see all sides engaging in confidence-building measures, more cooperation, whenever possible, and the need for self-restraint on the part of all parties."

Thailand is helping to coordinate between ASEAN and China, Sihasak said, adding it has done its best to move the dialogue forward, particularly in efforts to agree on a code of conduct in the South China Sea.

Efforts since December 2012 to launch talks among the four Southeast Asian nations with claims on the South China Sea have been unable to reach consensus.

In February, Manila hosted a meeting of claimant states but Brunei failed to attend, and also skipped a meeting in Kuala Lumpur in late March, saying it was not in its national interest to do so. Manila is trying to revive the talks.

The Philippines has filed an arbitration case against China before the U.N. tribunal in the Hague, seeking clarification of its 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone in the South China Sea. Manila expects the court to rule in its favor within a year after China ignored the arbitration case.

(Reporting by Manuel Mogato; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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