China's agreement to begin discussions with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on the fine print of a code of conduct framework for the disputed South China Sea will be a stabilizer for the region, Premier Li Keqiang said.
"China's greatest hope is for peace and stability in the South China Sea," Li told ASEAN leaders in Manila.
Southeast Asia and China foreign ministers in August adopted a negotiating framework for a code of conduct in the South China Sea, a move they hailed as progress but seen by critics as a tactic to buy Beijing time to consolidate its maritime power.
Li, addressing leaders of the ASEAN grouping during a summit in Manila yesterday, said there was a consensus on moving forward and to try to peacefully resolve the thorny issue.
"We hope the talks on the code of conduct will bolster mutual understanding and trust. We will strive under the agreement to reach a consensus on achieving early implementation of the code of conduct," Li said.
Li did not give a time frame, but said he hoped this move would be a stabilizer 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 yet.
Despite a period of relative stability in the South China Sea, some countries at the summit said this should not be taken for granted.
The framework seeks to advance a 2002 declaration of conduct, which has mostly been ignored by claimant states, particularly China, which has built seven islands in disputed waters.