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China, Southeast Asian Nations Agree to Draft of Conduct Pact in South China Sea

ASEAN and China foreign ministers pose for a photo ahead of the ASEAN-China Ministerial Meeting on the sidelines of the 51st ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting in Singapore, Aug. 2, 2018.

China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have approved a draft of a proposed agreement to prevent fighting in the disputed South China Sea.

China and the 10-nation bloc, which includes four claimants involved in the territorial dispute, have been engaged in sporadic negotiations for years to craft a "code of conduct" aimed at preventing violent outbreaks in the region.

Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said Thursday, at the start of the annual meeting of top diplomats from China and the association's member nations, the development is a "milestone."

Chinese counterpart Wang Yi said approval of the draft was "good news" and a "breakthrough."

China has transformed seven disputed reefs into man-made islands replete with three runways, surface-to-air missiles and other weapons systems.

Without naming China, ASIAN foreign ministers cited Beijing's actions, saying in a statement they "took note of the concerns expressed by some countries on the land reclamations in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region.''

China has responded to criticism for militarizing the strategic waterway by claiming it has the right to build on its territory and defend them at all costs.

In addition to China and Taiwan, ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have had claims in the South China Sea, a pathway for much of the commerce and oil that help bolster Asia's bustling economies.

U.S. military ships and jets patrol the waters, a presence that Washington maintains is designed to promote freedom of navigation and overflight. China contends, however, the United States is meddling in Asian affairs.