Indonesia is sending south-east Asian nations a draft code of conduct for the South China Sea, hoping for progress before a regional summit in November.
Foreign minister Marty Natalegawa has been trying to patch up differences among Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) members on how to manage the maritime territorial disputes that pit China against several of its neighbours in a region where sea lanes are crucial to world trade, rich fishing grounds and potentially major reserves of natural gas and oil.
He said the situation in the region - also rattled by a separate island dispute between China and Japan - was very troubling, but countries including China appreciated they had much to lose from conflict.
"There's a recognition that the countries of the region have prospered and have developed precisely because there's been very benign, stable conditions," Mr Natalegawa said in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly's annual gathering of world leaders. "This is something we don't want to be tinkering with. It could become like a Pandora's box."
China, which claims most of the South China Sea, upped the ante in July in its sharp disagreements with the Philippines and Vietnam over who owns what by establishing a military garrison, which Beijing claims will administer a vast area of sea and tiny islands scattered across it.
Beijing wants to settle conflicting claims with individual nations rather than through a multilateral mechanism that will give the smaller members greater clout in negotiations.
Mr Natelagawa, who met his Chinese counterpart on Tuesday, said there had been some adjustment in China's position. He said China recognised "as much as anyone else" the need for diplomatic progress, including implementing a declaration of conduct - the non-binding agreement that Beijing signed up to with Asean, in 2002. The code of conduct on peacefully resolving the South China Sea sovereignty disputes is intended as the mechanism for putting that declaration into practice.
"What we are looking for is a basic rules-of-the-road type of arrangement for the South China Sea," said Mr Natelagawa, "so that countries behave in a manner that is expected of them in maintaining stability."
In his speech to the UN, Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said the disputes had been festering for the better part of a century and Asean was engaged in "earnest negotiations" for a legally-binding code of conduct.
Mr Natelagawa said "we will begin to test the waters" on the draft code in consultations with south-east Asian governments this week in New York, hoping for progress before a summit of east Asian leaders to be held in Cambodia in November. He said that was needed so the disputes don't run "out of control".