Addressing a news conference in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, Clinton asked the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China to work toward a code of conduct for settling the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
"The United States has a national interest, as every country does, in the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law, freedom of navigation, unimpeded lawful commerce in the South China Sea," Clinton said, a State Department transcript showed.
Clinton arrived in Jakarta as part of her Asia-Pacific tour, which will also include a trip to China Tuesday. The visit comes as China continues to assert sovereignty over resource-rich islands in the sea over which Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei also have overlapping claims. The United States, knowing the strategic sea lanes are vital for international commerce, is concerned about the rising territorial tensions and supports a multilateral format for resolving the issues. China prefers a bilateral approach, which critics say would allow it to exert pressure on countries that have close economic ties with it.
Clinton repeated the U.S. stand that while it does not take a position on competing territorial claims, it wants the nations of the region to work together to resolve the disputes without intimidation, threats or use of force.
"That is why we encourage ASEAN and China to make meaningful progress towards finalizing a comprehensive code of conduct in order to establish rules of the road and clear procedures for peacefully addressing disagreements," she said.
The ASEAN group could not agree on a code of conduct at its July summit. Since then China has set up a military garrison in the disputed waters, which has further raised the concerns of neighboring nations.
"The United States believes very strongly that no party should take any steps that would increase tensions or do anything that could be viewed as coercive or intimidating to advance their territorial claims," Clinton said.
In a report Tuesday ahead of Clinton's China visit, the official Xinhua news agency said her visit will be followed later this month by U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
"The world's attention will focus on how the two U.S. officials will explain to the Chinese side the true intentions of the Obama administration's pivot to Asia policy, especially its new defense strategy," the report said, adding Washington has been implementing the policy by expanding and intensifying its political, diplomatic and military involvement in the Asia-Pacific region.
"The fundamental goal underpinning this shift is to maintain the U.S. dominance in the resources-rich and fastest-growing region, amid heightened concerns about China's rise," the report said.
As part of this policy, it said, Washington has quickened the pace of increasing its military presence and engagement in the Asia Pacific, including deploying troops in Australia, boosting military cooperation with Japan, and purposely strengthening military ties with some Asian countries, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam, both involved in territorial disputes with China.
Separately, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei, while referring to the Clinton visit, said Monday that Beijing hoped the United States would promote peace and stability in the region by "not taking sides" in Chinese maritime disputes with neighboring states, the Voice of America reported.
Clinton was in Jakarta to discuss the U.S.-Indonesia Comprehensive Partnership, which began in 2007, the secretary's office said in a release.
The Comprehensive Partnership includes issues and actions on regional and global cooperation; economy; trade and investment; education; development; climate, environment and energy; defense and security; and rule of law and law enforcement, the release said.