BEIJING (REUTERS) - China will firmly safeguard freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, Premier Li Keqiang said on Tuesday (Nov 14) at the East Asia Summit in Manila, state news agency Xinhua reported.
"Li said China is the largest country in the South China Sea and a major nation that uses the lanes in the sea, thus China shows more interest in safeguarding peace, stability, and navigation freedom in the South China Sea than any other country in the world," Xinhua said.
The Chinese leader stressed that peace and stability in the waterway, a vital international shipping lane, benefits all countries, and with the joint efforts of China and Asean the situation in the South China Sea will remain stable.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said later on Tuesday China had "graciously" agreed to start negotiations towards a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, and would abide by whatever was decided.
Duterte said China had also agreed that access to waterways and airspace in the South China Sea would be "unbridled" and"unfettered".
Signing China up to a legally binding and enforceable Code of Conduct has long been a goal for claimant members of Asean, some of which have sparred for years over what they see as China's disregard for their sovereign rights and its blocking of fishermen and energy exploration efforts.
Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei, Vietnam and the Philippines all claim some or all of the South China Sea and its myriad shoals, reefs and islands.
Asean and China foreign ministers in August adopted a negotiating framework for the Code of Conduct, a move they hailed as progress but seen by critics as a tactic to buy China time to consolidate its maritime power.
Li said on Tuesday countries involved in the issue have "returned to the right track of negotiations and consultations", noting that Asean and China had announced on Monday the start of consultations on the text of the Code of Conduct, reported Xinhua. Li didn't give a timeframe for the talks, but said he hoped this move would be a "stabiliser" for the region.
Critics say the agreement to talk on the details of the code of conduct is only an incremental move, with a final agreement not likely anytime soon.
Despite a period of relative stability in the South China Sea, some countries at the East Asia Summit said this shouldn't be taken for granted.
The framework seeks to advance a 2002 Declaration of Conduct (DOC) of Parties in the South China Sea, which has mostly been ignored by claimant states, particularly China, which has built seven manmade islands in disputed waters, three of which are equipped with runways, surface-to-air missiles and radars.
All parties say the framework is only an outline for how the code will be established but critics say the failure to outline as an initial objective the need to make the code legally binding and enforceable, or have a dispute resolution mechanism, raises doubts about how effective the pact will be.