Ministers of Southeast Asian nations and China on Sunday adopted a negotiating framework for a code of conduct over the disputed South China Sea.
Although the move was hailed by both sides as progress, critics say the protocol won't stop Chinese expansion in the region.
The development follows debates among foreign ministers of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) at a security forum in the Philippines.
Tensions over the sea have long vexed ASEAN, which operates on a consensus basis but has had to balance the interests of rival claimants and those more aligned to China.
Critics of China have accused it of trying to divide ASEAN with strong-armed tactics and chequebook diplomacy, enticing smaller countries in the bloc such as Cambodia and Laos to support it.
The Philippines, under previous president Benigno Aquino, had been one of the most vocal critics of China and filed a case before a UN-backed tribunal.
The tribunal last year ruled China's sweeping claims to the sea had no legal basis. But China, despite being a signatory to the UN's Convention on the Law of the Sea, ignored the ruling.
TRT World's Arabella Munro looks at why the territory is such a sensitive issue.