China and the members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) had been hoping to this year agree on the framework, 15 years after committing to draft it.
The approval comes 15 years after China and ASEAN had made a decision to forge a set of guidelines. A Chinese presence on the shoal is seen as the final point on a "strategic triangle" that would allow China to truly control the dispute waters, says Zhang. "We have sternly protested [to China] that it is utterly unacceptable".
On his return to Manila on Tuesday Duterte said he was open to exploring the sea's natural resources with China and Vietnam, but did not mention the other claimants.
Huang said it likely contains clauses barring the use of force or unilateral changes to facts on the ground, such as the construction of man-made islands by China that it has equipped with airfields and military installations.
The two sides agreed that economic-trade-investment link will continue to be the foundation for bilateral ties, and were committed to effectively carrying out the 2016-2020 Action Plan and soon completing procedures to upgrade the ASEAN-China Free Trade Area towards lifting two-way trade to 1 trillion Dollars and the total investment to 150 billion USD by 2020.
The fuel-hungry country has been pursuing the energy source, located at the bottom of oceans and in polar regions, for almost two decades.
"No matter what the final draft agreement looks like, the devil will be in working out the details", said Storey, foreseeing a long, hard negotiation on the final document.
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After officials met in Guiyang, capital of southwest China's Guizhou Province, China's foreign ministry said the framework had been agreed, although it gave no details of its contents.
The Philippines welcomed the finalization of the draft of the framework.
Chee Wee Kiong, permanent secretary at Singapore's foreign ministry, said a draft framework would be submitted to a meeting of the foreign ministers of China and the ASEAN states in the Philippines in August.
The meeting was held ahead of the upcoming China-ASEAN foreign ministers' meeting in July, the state news agency reported.
China's claims to sovereignty over the parts of the sea - and its estimated 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas - have antagonized competing claims from Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
Under former President Benigno Aquino, the Philippines had adopted a tough stance on China's claims, but the country's anger at the world's second largest economy has become a warm embrace following the election a year ago of President Rodrigo Duterte, who has declined to push China on territorial issues in hopes of being rewarded with investment and aid.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Friday described them as "some kind of armed garrison".
China's government has also repeatedly asserted that it can do whatever it likes on what it says is its own territory.