BEIJING – A framework agreement between China and the Association of Southeast Asia Nations on a code of conduct in the South China Sea marks a potentially significant step toward cooling tensions in the strategic waterway, analysts said Friday.
While details of the agreement reached Thursday weren't disclosed, it is a definite sign of progress on reaching a final code of conduct that the parties committed to 15 years ago, the experts said.
Until recently, progress has been slow amid disputes over the body of water that China claims virtually in its entirety.
For China, the code of conduct is a means to achieving its goal of keeping the U.S. and its allies from intervening in the matter in the name of freedom of navigation or maintaining regional stability, said Huang Jing, an expert on the region at National University of Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.
"China can say, 'Look we have already reached agreements, are behaving ourselves, so no need for you Americans or others to come in and get in our business,'" Huang said in a telephone interview.
The agreement suits China's goal of managing rather than solving the disputes, with Beijing still certain that it will eventually reach solutions through bilateral talks, Huang said.
For the 10 ASEAN member states, meanwhile, the agreement offers a chance to freeze further Chinese advances in the region at a time when the Trump administration has turned its focus away from the region with the abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other developments, Huang said.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said the text of the framework would remain secret for now, and Philippine officials said it would be submitted to foreign ministers for consideration in August.
Huang said it likely contains clauses barring the use of force or unilateral changes to facts on the ground, such as the construction of man-made islands by China that it has equipped with airfields and military installations.
"The ASEAN countries known they can't fight the Chinese or count on America so it's best to work with China to stabilize the status quo," Huang said.
While Huang called the agreement "very significant progress," Ian Storey, senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, a Singapore-based think tank, described it as more of a "small step forward," based on a draft of the document agreed to in March.
"What's new are the references to incident prevention and management, and establishing mechanisms to monitor the COC's implementation," Storey said.
That draft does not call for a legally binding code of conduct as some ASEAN countries had called for, Storey said, potentially weakening its impact.
"No matter what the final draft agreement looks like, the devil will be in working out the details," said Storey, foreseeing a long, difficult negotiation on the final document.
Asked whether the agreement would be binding, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin told reporters: "I cannot give you a definite answer now."
However, Liu said the agreement laid a "solid foundation" for further negotiations.
"All parties have vowed to continue to constructively advance the negotiations" toward the early conclusion of the code of conduct, Liu said following Thursday's meeting in the southern Chinese city of Guiyang.
The Philippines welcomed the finalization of the draft of the framework. It contains elements that the parties agreed upon and will be presented to Chinese and ASEAN foreign ministers in August for consideration, the statement from the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said.
Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs Permanent Secretary Chee Wee Kiong said the sides hoped that would produce needed "political support" from the ministers.
The participants have not mentioned dates for the adoption of a full code of conduct, and while Huang said he thought the sides could act as early as this year to seize the positive momentum, Storey said a final agreement was likely "some years off."
Before that happens, China and the ASEAN countries said they will continue following a separate document called the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, or DOC, which among other provisions, commits the parties to "exploring ways for building trust and confidence ... on the basis of equality and mutual respect."
Also Friday, China's Liu and the Philippines ambassador to Beijing Jose Santiago "Chito" Santa Romana were to meet separately to discuss an agenda for future talks on their dispute over islands and waters in the eastern portion of the South China Sea.
China was enraged by a ruling last year from a Hague tribunal invalidating most of its South China Sea claims in a case brought by the Philippines. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has downplayed that ruling as part of his push for a broad improvement in relations between the sides since taking office in June that has cast a shadow over Manila's ties to its longtime ally, the United States.
Despite the thaw in relations, China protested a visit last month by Manila's defense and military chiefs to a disputed island in the South China Sea. The Philippine government maintained that it owns the territory where Filipino troops and villagers have lived for decades.
At a briefing in Beijing earlier this week, Romana said the sides had "turned a new page" on dealing with their South China Sea issues.
"Generally, the situation has eased in terms of tensions between the Philippines and China," he said, citing regained access by Philippine fishermen to Scarborough Shoal after years of being blocked by Chinese ships.
"It does not mean the differences have disappeared. As (Duterte) told President Xi (Jinping), there will still be problems, but we are willing to discuss the issues with the Chinese side and he is optimistic that the bilateral negotiations and bilateral dialogue is the way to go," Romana said.
Along with the Philippines, ASEAN members Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei also maintain claims in the South China Sea that overlap with those of China and Taiwan.
An estimated $5 trillion in global trade annually passes through the South China Sea, which is also home to rich fishing grounds and a potential wealth of oil, gas and other natural resources.