China and its Southeast Asian neighbors on Thursday signed a set of guidelines on conduct in the disputed South China Sea, ahead of a major regional security summit at the weekend.
A wider accord on which country owns what in the vast waters claimed by several nations remains elusive. The issue has heated up in recent months with several incidents between claimants, particularly involving China.
The guidelines mark a slight respite in tensions especially around the disputed Spratly and Paracel island chains which are believed to be rich in natural resources.
The document adopted by Beijing and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) sets out agreed measures to make the 2002 Declaration of Conduct (DOC) of Parties in the contested South China Sea more binding.
It was signed by Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi and his ASEAN counterparts on Thursday following meetings in Indonesia on Wednesday.
"This afternoon ... the ministers of China and ASEAN countries formally endorsed the guidelines and also started implementation—fully and comprehensively—of the DOC," Chinese assistant foreign minister Liu Zhenmin told reporters.
Some view the document as a small but significant step towards reducing tensions in the South China Sea, claimed in its entirety by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam and in part by the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei.
Philippines officials have said they believe the guidelines won't do enough to end tensions in the region.
Some reports have said the guidelines were adopted only after it was agreed that ASEAN will not negotiate as a bloc with China on the South China Sea dispute.
China is unlikely to welcome any form of multilateral debate over the disputed maritime region, analysts say.
The agreement on the guidelines came ahead of the 27-member ASEAN Regional Forum talks on Saturday to be attended by, among others, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Chinese counterpart Yang.
At meetings this week, China repeated pledges to take steps to boost bilateral trade with ASEAN countries to U.S. $500 billion by 2015.
Liu said China wants to be "good friends, good partners, and good neighbors" with ASEAN countries.
Vietnam and China have held separate live-fire military exercises in the area after Hanoi accused Chinese ships of ramming one oil survey ship and cutting the exploration cables of another.
Vietnam also said sailors from China's navy had beaten the captain of a Vietnamese fishing boat and confiscated its catch.
The standoff sparked a wave of anti-China protests in Vietnam and warnings from Beijing to Vietnam not to try to involve the United States.
Last week, Vietnam and the United States carried out joint naval exercises in spite of disapproval from China.
China has underlined its "indisputable sovereignty" over the South China Sea, saying its claims stretch back at least to the 1930s, when official maps from Beijing contained the whole sea as Chinese territory.
China has rejected calls by ASEAN states for arbitration by the U.N.'s International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, an independent judicial body set up by the Convention of the Law of the Sea, the global legislation covering all maritime territorial disputes.
It has also unveiled a map showing a U-shaped dotted line extending from China and enclosing virtually the entire South China Sea while hugging the coastline of Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines.
Reported by Luisetta Mudie.