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China and Asean bloc make progress on maritime disputes

China and Asean are making progress on a legally binding code of conduct in the South China Sea, amid fresh accusations Beijing is pushing ahead with land reclamation in the disputed waters.

Premier Li Keqiang said the situation in the South China Sea was “heading towards a positive direction”, and that China was discussing adopting the code of conduct with Asean members.

A statement on Asean-China dialogue released on Wednesday said the two sides were working substantively towards an early adoption of the code of conduct, based on consensus.

Officials also approved guidelines for a hotline for maritime emergencies and a code of conduct for unexpected encounters among naval ships and aircraft.

Philippine presidential press secretary Martin Andanar said “everyone looked serious” during negotiations, and China had “vigorously” pushed for progress. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte “expressed his approval of having a framework for a code of conduct,” Andanar said.

But the Philippines also ­expressed “grave concern” that Chinese boats were preparing to build structures on the disputed Scarborough Shoal, an atoll 230km west of Manila.

The Philippine defence ministry released photographs and a map showing what it said was an increased number of Chinese vessels near the shoal. The Chinese foreign ministry said no dredging or construction was taking place. Beijing last year said it had completed land reclamation in the South China Sea.

Asean and China formulated a non-binding Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in 2002, which states that nations should not take actions that resulted in inhabiting deserted features.

Beijing also reaffirmed commitment to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, but said disputes should be resolved through talks by the sovereign states directly concerned.

Wu Shicun, president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, a Chinese government think tank, said a binding code was aimed at stabilising the situation in the disputed waters as it would limit coastguard patrols and land reclamation activities. “A legally binding code … can ensure order in the disputed waters, but it also forces China to accept the reality that many islands are in control of foreign hands,” Wu said. “Any moves to drive people away from those islands could trigger conflict and thus would be restricted by the code.”

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Du Jifeng, an expert on Southeast Asian affairs at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said agreeing to the code was concrete progress. “The more tense the South China Sea disputes are, the bigger the divide is among Asean member states,” he said.

The summit in Vientiane marks the first meeting between a top Chinese leader and Asean heads of state after a tribunal in The Hague rejected China’s claims to the waters in July.

There was no reference to the ruling during the talks, but Andanar said it was the basis of negotiations between Beijing and Manila. “[Duterte] wants a soft landing and doesn’t want to force the issue. It’s partly because he knows the ruling favours us, that’s why he’s willing to buy his time to be able to talk at an appropriate moment,” he said.

Additional reporting by Kristin Huang, Catherine Wong and Reuters