By Michael Martina
NUSA DUA, Indonesia (Reuters) - China and Southeast Asian countries agreed Wednesday to a preliminary set of guidelines in the South China Sea dispute, the Chinese side said, a rare sign of cooperation in a row that has plagued relations in the region for years.
But a broader accord on which country owns what in waters believed to be rich in gas and oil remains as far off as ever.
China, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and Taiwan all claim territory in the South China Sea. China's claim is the largest.
"We have reached agreement at the senior officials' meeting of ASEAN countries and China some minutes ago, on the guidelines of implementation on the DOC (Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea)," China's assistant foreign minister, Liu Zhenmin, said.
"This is an important milestone document for cooperation among China and ASEAN countries," Liu told reporters on the sidelines of a forum between ASEAN foreign ministers and other regional powers on the Indonesian island of Bali this week.
The guidelines are an initial set of steps toward the more conclusive declaration, which China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have been in deadlock over since 2002.
According to Indonesian officials, earlier drafts created context for future rules on marine environmental protection, scientific research, safety of navigation and communication, search and rescue and combating transnational crime, but did not address drilling.
The agreed upon draft has not yet been released, and it is unclear if it contains wording about any of those issues.
Liu said the settlement on the guidelines, which the countries had wrangled over for six years, would be submitted to foreign ministers for final approval Thursday.
In recent months China has been squaring off with the Philippines and Vietnam on what each says are intrusions into the other's territorial waters.
The South China Sea dispute was expected to take center stage at the ASEAN meetings this week, but China has long opposed what it calls other countries inserting themselves in bilateral disputes.
With Secretary of State Hillary Clinton due in Bali later this week, China's official Communist Party newspaper, the People's Daily, reiterated Beijing's disapproval of such meddling.
"This doesn't mean China is in the wrong, and certainly doesn't mean China is afraid of anything. We maintain this position simply to prevent the issue from expanding or becoming more complicated," the newspaper said.
China has previously sharply criticized the United States for holding military drills in the contested waters.
(Additional reporting by Olivia Rondonuwu; Editing by Nick Macfie)