CHINA'S willingness to discuss the Spratlys dispute within the framework of international laws is a significant development toward diffusing tension, Asia watchers say.
Although doubts persist in Manila about China's sincerity, last week's bilateral talks in the Philippine capital were a breakthrough.
China agreed for the first time to discuss the sovereignty issue and to a code of conduct with the Philippines in the Spratlys that would allow for freedom of navigation through the far-flung string of atolls in the South China Sea that straddle East Asia's most strategic sea lanes.
Suspicions that the area is rich in oil, gas, and marine resources have set off rival claims by China and five other countries - the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Brunei.
After lectures by the United States and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) asking China to behave, observers say Beijing is responding.
''China is trying to protect itself as a good neighbor because of the pressure from the US,'' says Julius Caesar Parrenas, an analyst with independent think tank the Institute for International and Strategic Studies here.
''China feels it is in danger of being isolated and wants to reassure ASEAN countries it will be a good neighbor,'' he adds.
The agreement commits Beijing and Manila ''to settle their bilateral disputes in accordance with the recognized principles of international law, including the United Nations Conventions on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).''
By using the UNCLOS as a possible framework, there would be a common basis later to determine the drawing of the baselines of each of the six claimants to the Spratlys.
''I don't think there will be an agreement soon,'' observes Mr. Parrenas. ''There will be a lot of talking to prepare their respective publics, especially the politicians, to accept an agreement.''