Officials from China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations said Wednesday they had agreed a set of guidelines regarding cooperation in disputed areas of the East Sea (also known as South China Sea).
The agreement was reached after senior officials from both sides met during annual ASEAN meetings in the Indonesian island of Bali, ahead of a gathering of their ministers on Thursday.
While the guidelines were hailed publicly as a "significant step" in resolving territorial disputes in the resource-rich area, diplomats conceded that they have been watered down and contain more generalities than specifics.
Moreover, differences still remain on which areas of the East Sea are being disputed after China laid claims to the entire region and the Philippines said it would seek UN arbitration to define the areas under contention.
"Through fruitful and constructive discussions and dialogue, we have been able to arrive, at our level, at an agreement on the draft guidelines," said Pham Quang Vinh, Vietnam's top senior foreign ministry official.
"This is a significant and good start for us to work together to continue dialogue and cooperation with a view to further promote this stability and confidence in the region," he told reporters after the meeting.
China's Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs Liu Zhenmin said the officials would submit what they had approved to their ministers for final endorsement.
"This is an important milestone document on the cooperation among China and ASEAN countries," Liu told reporters. "And we have a bright future and we are looking forward to future cooperation."
The guidelines, which have been under negotiation for nearly 10 years, spell out ways to implement a declaration of East Sea claimants on the need for a code of conduct to govern activities in the area.
The ultimate objective is for China and ASEAN to agree on a legally-binding Regional Code of Conduct in the East Sea but diplomats have said this remains far off.