In the midst of escalating tensions over the South China Sea, Chinese President Xi Jinping told leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that Beijing will not "bully" its smaller regional neighbours.

Beijing's territorial claims over the sea clash with those of numerous Southeast Asian countries, raising alarm in Washington and Tokyo.

Xi, however, stated that China would never seek hegemony or use its power to coerce smaller countries, and that China will work with ASEAN to remove interference. "China has always been, and will continue to be, a good neighbour, friend, and partner of ASEAN," Xi added.

China's claim to sovereignty over the South China Sea has pitted it against ASEAN members Vietnam and the Philippines, while Brunei, Taiwan, and Malaysia also lay claim to parts.

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The Philippines criticised three Chinese coast guard vessels for allegedly blocking and firing a water cannon at resupply boats bound for a Philippine-occupied territory in the sea.

The US labelled China's activities "dangerous, provocative, and unwarranted" and warned that an armed strike on Philippine ships would trigger US mutual defence commitments.

President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines told the Xi-hosted summit that he "abhors" the dispute and that the rule of law is the only way to resolve the conflict. He cited a 2016 international arbitration ruling that declared China's maritime claim to the sea to be without legal foundation.

"This does not speak well of our nations' ties," said Duterte, who is set to leave office next year and has already been criticised for neglecting to oppose China's actions in the disputed waters.

Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam are all members of ASEAN.