MANILA (UPDATED) - The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China have agreed to start negotiations on a code of conduct on the South China Sea, officials said Monday.
Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said the start of talks on a code of conduct in the disputed waters was among results of Monday's meetings among leaders of the ASEAN and China.
"One of the outcomes of the meetings is to commence the negotiations on a substantive and effective Code of Conduct in the South China Sea after concluding the Framework Agreement on Code of Conduct," Roque said in a statement.
Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Robespierre Bolivar confirmed this in a text message.
"Leaders of ASEAN and China, in their statements delivered during the ASEAN-China Summit, have agreed to start talks on the Code of Conduct based on the Framework approved by the Foreign Ministers in August. The Philippines will issue a Chairman's Statement for the ASEAN-China Summit to reflect this fact," he said.
ASEAN diplomatic sources said that the negotiations will begin in March in Vietnam, one of the claimants.
According to a draft of a statement to be issued after the ASEAN-China summit in Manila, obtained and reported on earlier Monday by Kyodo News, the leaders noted the adoption in August of a framework of the Code of Conduct (COC) by foreign ministers from ASEAN and China, and called it "an important milestone."
"The Leaders announced that as a next step, ASEAN Member States and China will officially commence negotiations on the COC," it said.
In his opening remarks at the ASEAN-China summit, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang pledged that China will be a good neighbor and partner to ASEAN.
"China always sees ASEAN as a priority in our neighborhood diplomacy. We are committed to working with ASEAN to be good neighbors, good friends and good partners that always stand together rain or shine," Li said.
China, which claims almost the entire South China Sea, has reclaimed a number of the disputed reefs and fortified them with military features over the past few years.
In July 2016, the Philippines won an arbitration award against China, declaring its historical claims as having no legal basis. But Beijing continues to reject the ruling.
The ASEAN foreign ministers and China signed a Declaration of Conduct by the Parties in the South China Sea in 2002, a looser set of guidelines for their actions in the contested sea. The grouping had since then been working to upgrade it.
In August this year, their foreign ministers adopted a framework of the Code of Conduct that "will facilitate the work for the conclusion of an effective COC on a mutually agreed timeline."
The Philippines used to be a vocal critic of China's assertiveness in regional waters, but Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, since taking power just weeks before the ruling, has engaged in diplomacy with Beijing and started focusing less on differences over conflicting territorial claims between them, in return for receiving economic cooperation from the Asian powerhouse.
Unlike the annual meetings of the ASEAN foreign ministers in July in which the joint statements are fiercely negotiated, the statements from the ASEAN summits are mainly prepared by the chair country -- in this case the Philippines. While it is expected to reflect the mood of the meeting, the chair country has more prerogative to decide on the content.
Besides the Philippines, fellow ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam have South China Sea claims that overlap with those of China and Taiwan. ASEAN also includes Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Singapore and Thailand.
The draft statement also said the leaders "agreed to cooperate to maintain peace, stability, freedom of navigation in and over-flight above the SCS, in accordance with international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS (U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea)."
"They emphasized that it is in their collective interest to avoid miscalculations that could lead to escalation of tensions," it added.
China was ASEAN's largest trading partner in 2016 and remained ASEAN's fourth-largest external source of foreign direct investment. They aim to boost their two-way trade to US$1 trillion by 2020, the statement said.
China has in recent years expanded its economic influence beyond the Indo-Chinese countries such as Cambodia and Laos to other Southeast Asian countries, especially those with which it has a territorial dispute over the South China Sea, such as the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
The meeting is expected to adopt a joint statement to strengthen their cooperation against corruption. They also plan to chart a new "ASEAN-China Strategic Partnership Vision 2030" at their summit next year. -- with reports from Kyodo News