China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) recently adopted an agreement on the guidelines of implementing the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), which enables them to take a more defined road for cooperation in this region, analysts said.
The guidelines, which were released Wednesday by senior officials from China and the 10-member ASEAN, are formally endorsed by Chinese and ASEAN foreign ministers on Thursday.
Although brief in content, the guidelines include some principles that offer directions for implementing the DOC and map out procedural rules for cooperation in the future, China's Ambassador to ASEAN Tong Xiaoling told Xinhua in an interview.
Because the consultation on the guidelines had been deadlocked for a long time, some possible cooperative projects were not able to move forward, Tong said.
Now that China and the ASEAN have finally churned out the document, the parties can shift their focus to exploring practical cooperation in the South China Sea, instead of trading empty talk, she said.
According to Tong, China and the ASEAN can set up working groups or committees in the next stage, aiming to carry out cooperation in areas with low sensitivity, such as marine research and maritime safety.
The DOC was signed in November 2002 as the first code of conduct for all parties involved in diplomatic issues in the South China Sea.
In order to drive forward the cooperative projects stated in the DOC, China and the ASEAN conducted consultations on rolling out the guidelines to implement the DOC. The two sides witnessed two senior officials' meetings and set up a relevant joint working group.
Signatories to the DOC agree to explore cooperation in such areas as marine sciences research, marine safety and combating transnational crimes.
Although uncertainty lingers ahead of the convening of a series of foreign ministers' meetings from July 21 to 23 at Indonesia's resort island of Bali, the endorsement of the guidelines displays China and the ASEAN's common aspiration to deepen cooperation and mutual trust, said Zhang Jiuhuan, former Chinese Ambassador to Thailand and Singapore.
Disputes still remain on issues such as the sovereignty of some islands in the South China Sea, and some countries in the region are accused of violating the spirit of the DOC on many occasions in recent years. In such circumstances, the endorsement of the guidelines enhances the principles in the DOC and exert great significance, said Li Guoqiang, an expert with Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
The oil- and gas-rich South China Sea is partially claimed by several southeast Asian states, including the Philippines and Vietnam. However, China interprets history as giving it indisputable sovereignty over the sea's islands and their surrounding waters.
During the ASEAN Plus China Foreign Ministers' meeting held in Indonesia on Thursday, the foreign ministers of ASEAN said the agreement on the guidelines demonstrates that both China and ASEAN are able and willing to resolve the toughest issue.
It is conducive to promoting mutual trust and safeguarding regional peace, stability and prosperity, they added.
Analysts also see the guidelines providing a positive impetus in safeguarding peace and solidarity in the South China Sea, but they don't regard the guidelines as a panacea in solving territorial disputes in the region.
"The disputing parties are not China and the ASEAN, so a document reached by the two sides cannot solve the disputes," Tong said, stressing the disputes can only be handled within a bilateral framework.
Parties having no direct links with the disputes, should not intervene in this issue, she added.
Concerning the China-ASEAN cooperation in the area, countries related should share the view that "extreme means are not acceptable in solving territorial disputes," and take concrete actions to push forward maritime cooperation in the meantime, said Qin Yaqing, deputy director of the Chinese Foreign Affairs University.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the China-ASEAN dialogue relationship. China now is the ASEAN's largest trading partner, and ASEAN exceed Japan to become the third largest trading partner of China in April.