Keeping seas calm in the region

Rival South China Sea claims will likely remain unresolved for the foreseeable future, but ASEAN foreign and defence ministers should draw some guarded optimism from talks with their Chinese and other counterparts that the disputes will not get out of hand.

At the ASEAN-China foreign ministers' meeting in Beijing, there was strong reaffirmation not to let the spats overshadow fast-expanding economic ties.

At the ASEAN defence ministers' meeting with China, Japan, the United States and others in Brunei, those quarrels clearly failed to distract attention from discussion of other concerns such as counter-terrorism, peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

ASEAN should welcome the new Chinese leadership's re-adoption of the late Deng Xiaoping's sage advice to "shelve differences and seek joint development" in resolving territorial disputes with neighbouring countries.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has made a constructive proposal for joint exploration and exploitation of marine resources. If taken up, this would help steer all parties away from sensitive zero-sum sovereignty matters towards building mutual trust needed to settle such issues eventually.

Some might disagree with the minister's characterisation of the South China Sea as "stable".

But given a modicum of trust and confidence, claimants should be able to manage their disputes without too much tension, and postpone resolution indefinitely. A legally binding Code of Conduct, on which China has agreed to have consultations with ASEAN, would help.

It would go a long way in forestalling any escalation and in subtracting any urgency for immediate action. It would help leaders keep a lid on nationalistic passions and avoid heated words, close encounters and potentially violent confrontations.

ASEAN and other defence ministers have, at their Brunei meeting, suggested practical ways, such as hotlines and exercises, to avoid maritime collisions.

A code would offer China an acceptable way to deal with other claimants without giving up its insistence on bilateral rather than multilateral negotiations.

It serves no one's interests to complicate and exacerbate the situation. All, including the US, Japan and others that are economically interdependent with China and ASEAN, have too much at stake to want a sea of trouble.

China would do well to refrain from robust assertions of its remarkably expansive maritime territorial claims. ASEAN members have not banded together against China.

Win-win opportunities will come only with restraint all round.

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.