THE long-running dispute between China and its rivals in the South China Sea centres on an apparently insoluble conflict: China’s maritime claims overlap with those of Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. Nobody wants to go to war; nobody wants to back down. To reduce the chances of armed conflict and give all claimants a chance to save face, the countries have ostensibly been negotiating a set of rules designed to regulate behaviour and manage tensions for decades. The idea was first mooted by the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the late 1990s, after China’s seizure in 1995 of a Philippine-claimed reef; since then, negotiations have proceeded haltingly. But on May 18th the two sides agreed on a framework for a “code of conduct”. It will be presented to foreign ministers in August, and will form the basis for future negotiations. Both sides congratulated themselves on their progress. But will it amount to anything?