KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Malaysia's leader said Monday that Southeast Asian countries will avoid direct confrontation with China but push for a quick conclusion to a binding code of conduct to govern behavior in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.
Prime Minister Najib Razak said the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations' non-confrontational approach to the dispute has been effective in keeping tensions with Beijing at bay.
"We will continue to engage China in a constructive way," Najib said at a news conference after chairing an ASEAN leaders' meeting. "We hope to be able to influence China. It is also in their interest not to be seen as confronting ASEAN and that any attempt to destabilize this region will not benefit China either."
ASEAN will seek "expeditious resolution" of a code of conduct with China, Najib said.
He indirectly rejected calls by the Philippines for ASEAN to stand up to China. Manila has warned that Beijing is poised to take "de facto control" with its construction of artificial islands on reefs claimed by other countries in the area.
"The massive reclamation activities undertaken by China pose a threat to the security and stability of the region, cause irreparable damage to the marine environment and threaten the livelihood of many of our peoples," Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said earlier in a speech at the meeting.
Aquino said ASEAN must have political will and unite against "activities that exacerbate tensions" in the region. Manila has warned that China will likely wait to complete its reclamation work before it agrees to conclude the code of conduct.
China, Taiwan and ASEAN members Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei have overlapping claims in the South China Sea, which includes busy sea lanes and rich fishing grounds, and is believed to have large undersea deposits of oil and natural gas.
ASEAN has maintained a cautious stand in the dispute to avoid angering China, a key trading partner.
Malaysia, chair of this year's summit, was to issue a statement later Monday saying that it shared serious concerns raised by some ASEAN members on Chinese land reclamation in the sea.
The reclamation activities have "eroded trust and confidence, and may undermine peace, security and stability in the South China Sea," it warned in the statement, a draft of which was seen by The Associated Press.
Malaysia called for "self-restraint in the conduct of activities" and said no parties should resort to use of threat or force.
Officials from ASEAN nations and China are scheduled to meet in May and June to hasten the pace of discussions on the issue, Malaysia said earlier.
The Philippines filed a case with an international arbitration tribunal in 2013 challenging China's South China Sea claims.
Beijing has defended its reclamation, saying it is Chinese territory and the structures are for public service use and to support Chinese fishermen.