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China claims more than 90 percent of the 3.5-million-square-kilometer South China Sea.
Since 2010, China has expanded its coast guard and military presence in the waterway, which is valued for its oil and fisheries. Parts of the sea also are claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines.
But observers say ASEAN and China must recognize the deep sea dispute during the meetings in Manila.
ASEAN always discusses the South China Sea, Thayer noted. Vietnam and the Philippines had already softened their positions toward China since the world court ruling, said Nathan Liu, international affairs professor at Ming Chuan University in Taiwan.
Last year, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte made a friendly visit to Beijing.
The agreement, called a code of conduct, had been stopped for five years largely because China didn’t like it.
Then China’s occupation of a shoal in 2012 caused the Philippines to bring the territorial dispute to a world arbitration court.