Protesters hold Vietnamese national flags and banners as they march during an anti-China demonstration on a street in Hanoi June 19, 2011. (STAFF/REUTERS)

China warned the United States on Wednesday not to let Southeast Asian countries drag it into ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea, saying Washington should instead counsel its allies to show restraint.

“I believe the individual countries are playing with fire,” Cui Tiankai, China’s vice foreign minister, told a small gathering of correspondents Wednesday. “I hope the fire doesn’t reach the United States.”

The Philippines, one of a half dozen claimants to a chain of disputed islands in the South China Sea, effectively rejected that warning Thursday, appealing to the United States to clarify the coverage of two countries’ mutual defense treaty and to provide Manila with naval vessels to help it patrol the area and fend off Chinese incursions.

Cui was speaking ahead of a scheduled weekend meeting in Hawaii, where U.S. and Chinese officials plan to open the first round of bilateral talks devoted specifically to concerns in the Asian and Pacific regions. The U.S. side will be headed by Kurt Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.

The South China Sea dispute is not formally on the agenda, which was set before tensions erupted this month when a Chinese fishing boat became entangled with a Vietnamese oil exploration ship, damaging the ship’s undersea research cable. The clash at sea began an escalating series of taunts, threats and accusations, and culminated in the two sides conducting live-fire military exercises. There were also anti-Chinese demonstrations in Vietnam.

The Philippines has also expressed alarm at what it regards as increased Chinese aggressiveness in the South China Sea, where Beijing has warned other Asian countries to stop searching for oil near the disputed Spratly Islands. The Spratlys, an archipelago of largely uninhabited islands, reefs, cays and atolls, are claimed in their entirety by China, Taiwan and Vietnam and in part by the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.

In an interview in Washington, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said Thursday that Chinese “intrusions” into waters claimed by Manila have been “getting more aggressive” in recent months, apparently because of confirmation of large oil and gas reserves at Reed Bank in the Spratlys. He said his country has detected at least nine intrusions by Chinese vessels since February into the area, amounting to what he called “a creeping invasion of Reed Bank.” Chinese vessels have fired warning shots at Philippine fishing boats and harassed an exploration ship, del Rosario said. China has denied the allegations.

Reed Bank lies 85 nautical miles off the coast of the Philippine island of Palawan and nearly 600 nautical miles from the nearest coast of China. Beijing nevertheless claims the bank, as well as the entire Spratly archipelago.

“The situation is shaky out there,” del Rosario said. He said he is asking the Obama administration to “clarify” the territory covered by the two countries’ 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty and to “provide us with the capacity” to better patrol the Spratlys and “establish a clear presence in the area.” He said the United States should be concerned about any “threat to maritime safety and freedom of navigation” in the South China Sea. Del Rosario was scheduled to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Thursday afternoon.

Vietnam has charged that Chinese vessels rammed one of its oil survey ships and cut the exploration cables of another.

Since the incident, Vietnam has called on the United States , its onetime enemy during the Vietnam War of the 1960s and ‘70s, to help mediate the dispute, and joint military exercises were planned for next month. Now, the island dispute is likely to dominate the upcoming meeting.

Cui, briefing reporters Wednesday before leaving for Hawaii, repeated China’s long-standing position that the dispute over all the islands should be resolved through bilateral negotiations with the contesting parties and that Washington was an outside player with no role to play.

“The United States is not a claimant to the sovereignty and territorial dispute in the South China Sea,” Cui said. “It is better for the United States to leave the dispute to be settled among the claimants.” Cui noted that the United States had offered to play the role of neutral mediator. “We appreciate the gesture,” Cui said. “But more than not, such gestures will only make things more complicated.”

Cui said China and the United States had a shared goal in the “stability and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.” He continued, “So if the United States does want to play a role, it can counsel restraint to those countries that have taken provocative actions and urge them to show restraint.”

The Southeast Asian countries claiming sovereignty over the uninhabited islands and reefs have been unnerved by what they consider Beijing’s increasing assertiveness in pressing its own territorial claims to the islands. The issue is about more than sovereignty; there is the expectation that the surrounding seas contain potentially lucrative oil reserves.

China has maintained that its sovereignty over the islands goes back generations, and that the Southeast Asian countries made claims only when oil was discovered there in the 1960s. China has offered to put aside territorial claims for now and jointly develop the islands with the other claimants. “We still maintain this position,” Cui said.

The Beijing government also wants to deal with the rival claimants separately. But the others, feeling intimidated by China’s size and increasing strength, prefer to negotiate as a group and with the United States maintaining its military presence in the region to deter what they fear will be aggressive moves by China.

China’s claim of sovereignty over the entire South China Sea has long rankled Southeast Asian nations, which have complained that Beijing is asserting rights to waters well within their 200-mile exclusive economic zones.

In a sign of the mounting tensions in the South China Sea, diplomats from Asian countries not involved in the dispute are stepping up calls for a resolution.

Singapore issued a rare statement on the issue Monday, urging all parties to act with restraint and telling China to spell out its territorial claims in a precise fashion.

“We think it is in China’s own interest to clarify its claims in the South China Sea with more precision as the current ambiguity . . . has caused serious concerns in the international maritime community,” the Singaporean Foreign Ministry said.

Meanwhile, at a crowded forum in Washington to discuss the recent flare-ups, the ambassador from Indonesia — another country with no claim to the disputed islands — said this week that China and the other claimants should include other countries in the process.

“It should not turn into a matter just between the claiming states, because the bottom line is that whatever happens there will affect security to the entire region,” said Ambassador Dino Patti Djalal.

“Unfortunately, the reality is that we are quite a long ways from the point where any of the parties are ready to sit down and negotiate,” Djalal said. “This saber-rattling is likely to continue. We will have skirmishes of greater and greater intensity.”

Two senior U.S. defense officials attending the same forum appeared leery of being drawn into the conflict. In cautious remarks, they avoided taking sides and encouraged all parties to calm down.

“It’s not for us, the U.S., to implement these mechanisms in dealing with various claims on the South China Sea,” said one of the U.S. defense officials, who was not authorized to speak on the record.

However, some U.S. senators, including James Webb (D-Va.), have been outspoken on the issue, introducing a resolution to condemn China’s use of military force in the South China Sea.

“I think we in our government have taken too weak of a position on this,” Webb said earlier this month at the Council on Foreign Relations. “When we say the United States government doesn’t have a position on sovereignty issues, not taking a position is taking a position.”

Wan and Branigin reported from Washington.