China and Southeast Asian countries agreed on Thursday to a framework for a long-mooted code of conduct for the disputed South China Sea, China's foreign ministry said, as both sides step up efforts to ease tension in the strategic waterway.
China and the members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) had been hoping to this year agree on the framework, 15 years after committing to draft it.
Some ASEAN diplomats have expressed concern about whether China is being sincere, or whether ASEAN has enough leverage to get China to commit to a set of rules.
Some Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam and the Philippines, as well as the United States, have expressed concern at what they see as China's militarisation of the South China Sea, including building air strips on man-made islands.
After a meeting between Chinese and ASEAN officials in the Chinese city of Guiyang, China's foreign ministry said the framework had been agreed upon, although it gave no details of its contents.
The talks had been candid and deep and made positive achievements, it added in a statement.
All parties "uphold using the framework of regional rules to manage and control disputes, to deepen practical maritime cooperation, to promote consultation on the code and jointly maintain the peace and stability of the South China Sea", it added.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhemin, in comments carried on state television, said the framework was comprehensive and took into account the concerns of all sides.
But he called on others to stay out, apparently a coded message to the United States.
"We hope that our consultations on the code are not subject to any outside interference," Liu said.
The permanent secretary of Singapore's foreign ministry, Chee Wee Kiong, said what he called a "draft" framework would be submitted to a meeting between the foreign ministers of China and the ASEAN states in August in the Philippines.
"We hope to continue the positive momentum of consultation and make steady progress towards a substantive CoC based on consensus as directed by our leaders," Chee said, in remarks also shown on Chinese state television, referring to the code of conduct.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea, through which about $5 trillion in goods pass every year. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims.
Negotiators from China and ASEAN met in Indonesia and Cambodia in the last few months to try to reach a final draft, which could be approved ahead of the August meeting of Southeast Asian foreign ministers in the Philippines.