China and the 10 countries from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have agreed on regularly conducting joint military exercises, which should not involve countries from outside the region, the AFP news agency cited the code of conduct's proposed text as saying.
"We believe that without any disturbances from the outside, code of conduct consultations will accelerate," Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi pointed out.
He praised "leapfrog progress in advancing ASEAN-China relations from quantity to quality," adding that the first China-ASEAN maritime drills are due to be held in October 2018.
Wang was echoed by Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, who touted the draft code of conduct as a "major achievement".
"The code of conduct is meant to […] ensure that peace, stability, and confidence are built up so that we can continue to make collective progress between ASEAN and China while we take time to resolve the territorial disputes," he said on Thursday.
In this context, AFP quoted Hoang Thi Ha, of the ASEAN Studies Centre in Singapore, as saying that Beijing's proposal to exclude outside countries "is obviously targeted at the US, which has been dominating the waters of the Western Pacific and the South China Sea in particular."
Ha stressed that Beijing is apparently sending a "subtle message to the world that ASEAN and China could work together and things are progressing well, hence there is no need for external involvement in the South China Sea issue."
In early June, Lt. Gen. He Lei, vice president of the People's Liberation Army's Academy of Military Science, made it plain that China has a sovereign right to deploy its forces and equipment in the Spratly Islands and that "anyone who criticizes China's actions is trying to interfere in its domestic affairs."
The statement came after US Defense Secretary James Mattis lambasted Beijing for building up a military presence on the disputed South China Sea islands.
Earlier, two US warships had reportedly conducted a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) near the Paracel Islands, claimed by China, in the South China Sea.
The Chinese Defense Ministry condemned the operation, claiming that the warships had violated Chinese sovereignty and undermined strategic mutual trust, peace and security in the South China Sea.
In the past several years, China has devoted extensive resources to reclaiming many of these reefs from the sea and forming artificial islands, which has added to the debate about sovereignty over the region.
ASEAN includes Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.