Southeast Asian nations agreed with China on Sunday to endorse a framework for a maritime code of conduct that would govern behavior in disputed waters of the South China Sea, a small step forward in a negotiation that has lasted well over a decade, the Wall Street Journal reports.
Although not the long-discussed code itself, the framework sets out parameters for discussion of an agreement intended to bring predictability to a potential flashpoint as China increasingly asserts its military presence over the area in the face of rival claims.
The 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will meet with China at the end of August to discuss legalities for negotiations on the code of conduct, with formal talks beginning soon after, Philippines department of foreign affairs spokesman Robespierre Bolivar said Sunday.
The endorsement of the framework, which was tentatively agreed to in May, came during a bilateral meeting between China and ASEAN on the sidelines of a series of security-oriented meetings that will conclude Tuesday.
The unsticking of the framework after years of obstruction is widely seen as a concession by China, which has opposed any legally binding code on maritime engagement, stepped up naval patrols and built artificial islands to enforce its claims, equipping them with military weapons.
Beijing’s move to allow discussion on the code of conduct follows a resetting of ties with the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte, who in October—just four months after taking office—visited Beijing and declared a new friendship between the two countries.
The Philippines, which had been the most vocal Southeast Asian state to protest Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea, won an international arbitration case last year that effectively invalidated China’s claims.
Duterte has chosen not to press the victory, instead reaching out to Beijing for investment and economic cooperation. In recent weeks Philippine officials have publicly discussed the possibility of jointly exploring contested waters for natural resources alongside China.
Southeast Asian states have long sought to persuade China to sign up to an enforceable code for the strategic waters, something Beijing has so far avoided. There is no timetable to reach a final agreement.
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