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FILE PHOTO: Chinese structures are pictured in Subi Reef at disputed South China Sea, April 21, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro/File Photo

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By Manuel Mogato and Martin Petty

MANILA (Reuters) - China's support for finalising a code of conduct in the hotly contested South China Sea is generating some hope in Southeast Asia of settling disputes, but those working out the terms remain unconvinced of Beijing's sincerity.

Signing China up to a legally binding and enforceable code for the strategic waterway has long been a goal for claimant members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

But given the continued building and arming of its artificial islands in the South China Sea, Beijing's recently expressed desire to work with ASEAN to complete a framework this year has been met with scepticism and suspicion.

"Some of us in ASEAN believe this is just another ploy by China to buy time," said one senior diplomat familiar with the talks.

"China is expectedly stalling until it has completely attained its strategic objectives... What need is there for the green grass when the horse is dead?"

The framework seeks to advance a 2002 Declaration of Conduct (DOC) of Parties in the South China Sea, which commits to following the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), ensuring freedom of navigation and overflight, and "refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features".

But the DOC was not stuck to, especially by China, which has built seven islands in the Spratly archipelago. It is now capable of deploying combat planes on three reclaimed reefs, where radars and surface-to-air missile systems have also been installed, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative think tank.

Beijing insists its activities are for defence purposes, in areas it considers its waters. Malaysia, Taiwan, Brunei, Vietnam and the Philippines, however, all claim some or all of the resource-rich waterway and its myriad of shoals, reefs and islands.

BINDING CONTRACT

The ASEAN diplomat said the two rounds of talks so far this year gave the impression of progress, but details worked out so far were "essentially the same" as the DOC.

Another diplomat from the 10-member bloc said the framework would be "re-stating most of the major points" of the DOC, but the hard part was getting China to agree to a legally binding contract.

"Here lies the big challenge. You need to understand this is not just a simple matter of conforming to a set of words," the diplomat said.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang did not directly answer a question on whether China would support an enforceable code of conduct, but said China hoped for the framework and code to be completed this year.

Finalising the framework would be a feather in the cap for the Philippines, which chairs ASEAN this year. Manila has reversed its stance on the South China Sea, from advocating a unified front and challenging Beijing's unilateralism, to putting disputes aside to create warm ties.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has opted not to press China to abide by an international arbitration decision last year that ruled in Manila's favour and invalidated Beijing's sweeping South China Sea claims.

There will be no mention of the Hague ruling in an ASEAN leaders' statement at a summit in Manila on Saturday, nor will there be any reference to concerns about island-building or militarization that appeared in last year's text, according to excerpts of a draft seen by Reuters.

A diplomat at the ASEAN secretariat said there was urgency from all parties to get the framework done this year, but ASEAN was taking "a leap of faith" with China and there were concerns about what the end result might be.

Richard Heydarian, an expert on politics and international affairs at Manila's De La Salle University, said China's strategy was to project an image of being a responsible stakeholder rather than an aggressor, and avoid being bound to rules that could weaken its geopolitical position should the United States assert itself in the South China Sea.

"China wants to come up with a symbolic framework that says to America 'Hey, back off, we're dealing with ASEAN on a very diplomatic level', but nothing significant enough to operationally restrict their ability to respond if the Trump administration takes a tougher position," he said.

(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Lincoln Feast)

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Reuters