The Philippines took a daring legal step last week when it notified China that it will challenge Beijing's claims to virtually the entire South China Sea in a case before an arbitration tribunal under the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. China has not issued a formal response, but its ambassador to Manila, Ma Keqing, has reiterated Beijing's "indisputable sovereignty" over the contested region.
Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Washington takes no sides in the territorial conflicts but backs an internationally accepted diplomatic solution.
"It is best that China joins the process so that we can move forward under international law," the California Republican told The Associated Press after meeting Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario and other diplomats in Manila.
"We want to calm the tensions," Royce said. "We want this approached from the standpoint of diplomacy, and that is what we are conveying because in that way we don't create crisis which roils the markets or creates uncertainty."
Royce is leading a six-member U.S. congressional delegation in meetings with President Benigno Aquino III and other Philippine officials before traveling to Beijing on Wednesday as part of a tour of Asia, where America has been trying to reassert its presence after focusing on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
China, the Philippines and four other countries have overlapping claims across the vast South China Sea. Beijing claims it has sovereignty over virtually all of the region, which may be rich in oil and gas and is home to some of the world's busiest shipping sealanes.
Chinese paramilitary ships confronted Philippine vessels last year in a monthslong standoff over a disputed shoal. China has effectively controlled the shoal since June, when Manila withdrew its ships as a typhoon approached.
There are fears that territorial conflicts in the region, including a dispute between Japan and China in the East China Sea, could spark Asia's next armed conflict.
Philippine Ambassador to Washington Jose Cuisia said del Rosario and other Philippine diplomats told the U.S. delegation that Manila decided to bring its disputes with China to international arbitration after other diplomatic steps failed, including an effort to get the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations involved in finding a solution.
In its case against China, the Philippines listed several aggressive moves it alleged were launched by China in recent years to fortify its territorial claims, including the occupation of South China Sea islands and the enactment this month of a Chinese law that allows Chinese patrol vessels to intercept, detain or expel foreign ships passing through vast stretches of waters that Beijing claims.
The Philippines specifically sought an end to Chinese occupation and activities on eight reefs and shoals and surrounding waters, including Mischief Reef, which China occupied in 1995, sparking fierce protests from Manila and concern from Southeast Asian nations.