China claims almost all of the sea, even approaching the coasts of its neighbours.
US President Donald Trump told his Vietnamese counterpart yesterday he is ready to help resolve the dispute in the resource-rich South China Sea, which Beijing claims most of. In 2014, China moved an oil rig into waters off Vietnam's coast, sparking violent protests in several Vietnamese cities.
Nearly all of the South China Sea, one of the world's busiest waterways, is claimed by China. "So if I can help you, let me know".
And China , which has long insisted the United States has no role to play in the dispute, spoke out against what it deemed foreign interference.
"We are committed to working with ASEAN to build a community of shared future featuring common ideals, common prosperity and common responsibility", Li said in his opening statement at the ASEAN-China Summit here.
President Rodrigo Duterte, this year's chairperson of Asean, was confident that the Southeast Asian leaders' meeting with China would pave the way for a "strategic parternship" between them.
Manila yesterday, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said there was a consensus on moving forward and to try to peacefully resolve the issue of South China Sea.
"We expect the leaders to announce the negotiations but the actual start of the negotiations will probably happen sometime next year", Foreign Affairs spokesman Robespierre Bolivar said during a press conference at the International Media Center over the weekend.
China initially agreed in 2002 to begin talks on a code, but delayed doing so while carrying out its expansionist strategy.
Asean member-states and China took a three-step process for the completion of an actual code of conduct - adoption of the framework, discussion of modalities for the negotiation of code of conduct, and announcement of start of negotiation for actual, legally-binding document.
The statement will be issued after a meeting later between China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the Philippines capital, a diplomatic source said.
Following Manila's complaint to a United Nations-backed tribunal, the panel ruled a year ago that China 's territorial claims in the sea were without legal basis.
The stop in the Philippines is the last leg of a tour that has taken Trump to Japan, South Korea and China as well as Vietnam, the longest Asia trip by a USA president in more than 25 years.
He instead chose to build closer ties in return for billions of dollars in investments and aid.
The Chinese leader, however, would not back down on Beijing's territorial claim, Mr Duterte said. But he said his tactics had eased tensions and opened the door to dialogue.