MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines and China have agreed on the need for a binding code of conduct in the South China Sea as the two countries seek to defuse tensions over territorial disputes that have flared this year, President Benigno Aquino said.
Aquino, speaking to reporters late on Wednesday after meeting his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao, said the sentiment of the talks was clearly toward maintaining peace in the sea, a key shipping lane that sits above oil and gas deposits.
"They actually even responded that there should be an implementing agreement already for the code of conduct in the South China Sea or the West Philippine Sea. That is very significant," Aquino said.
"There was no increase in tension, that is very, very clear," he said. "It's significant that they will be pushing for that code, not just as a statement of principle but rather a binding agreement as to how each and every party in the dispute will conduct themselves."
China claims most of the South China Sea, an area composed of uninhabitable small islands, rocks and reefs but believed to be rich in oil and gas deposits. The Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam, also claim portions of the sea.
Beijing favours one-on-one talks, while other claimants such as Manila favor a multilateral approach through bodies such as the Association of South East Asian Nations with a role for the United States -- which China opposes.
In July, China and Southeast Asian countries agreed on a preliminary set of guidelines in the South China Sea, a rare sign of cooperation in a row that has plagued relations in the region for years.
Tensions over rival claims in the sea flared in June, setting China against Vietnam and the Philippines, with China's recent military build-up triggering regional jitters that have fed into the territorial disputes.
Aquino is on a four-day state visit in China aimed at boosting economic cooperation, with both sides pledging to double trade to $60 billion by 2016. Manila hopes the visit will result in investments for big-ticket infrastructure projects.
China is the Philippines' third-biggest trade partner, with two-way trade of $27.7 billion in 2010, up 35.1 percent from 2009.
(Reporting by Rosemarie Francisco; Editing by John Mair)