Tension between the United States and China spilled over into meetings of Asia-Pacific leaders on Friday as the two countries jostled over how to handle competing claims to the South China Sea.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said “outside forces” had no excuse for becoming involved in the complex maritime dispute, a veiled warning to the United States and other countries to keep out of the sensitive issue.

“It ought to be resolved through friendly consultations and discussions by countries directly involved. Outside forces should not, under any pretext, get involved,” Wen told a meeting with Southeast Asian leaders, several of whose countries claim sovereignty to parts of the South China Sea.

The remark comes as President Obama has sought to reassert U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific region to counter the growing influence of China, the world’s second-largest economy.

The United States wants the dispute over the South China Sea discussed at meetings on the Indonesian resort island of Bali of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations and eight regional powers, including the United States, China, Russia and Japan.

Bilateral meetings were held Friday before a full East Asia Summit on Saturday.

Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei are the other claimants to parts of the South China Sea, a major route for about $5 trillion in trade each year and potentially rich in resources.

The Southeast Asian countries, along with the United States and Japan, are pressing China to seek some way forward on the knotty issue of sovereignty, which has flared up again this year with often tense maritime standoffs.

In bilateral meetings, Obama said the maritime dispute was an issue to be discussed by the summit. Indeed, he told India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that the East Asia Summit was the “premier arena” for resolving such an issue.

Japan added its voice to the call, saying those with claims should “seek a peaceful resolution in a transparent matter based on international law.”

China, though, is adamant that it does not want such talks to take place and that the issue should be resolved via bilateral negotiations. Raising the issue in multilateral summit talks would not help foster East Asian cooperation, it argues.

“On the contrary, this could open up a Pandora’s box and inflame regional tensions,” the overseas edition of the People’s Daily, the official paper of the ruling Communist Party, said Friday in a front-page commentary.

— Reuters