Calm seas, smoother relations

Any diplomatic move that will obligate rival claimants to South China Sea territory to observe agreed rules in furtherance of these claims is preferred over staged provocations that lead nowhere.

Agreement reached in Brunei for Asean and China to lay the groundwork for a legal code of conduct should therefore stay the hand of disputants, it is to be hoped.

Tensions have been rising in pitch as China, Vietnam and the Philippines came close to losing their cool in escalating incidents.

There have been fishery encroachments, the award of energy exploration blocks, challenges by armed vessels and most bizarrely, the dispatch of tour parties in cruise ships apparently to view the rocks.

Incursions raise the chances of conflict without promoting the means of even agreeing to hold preliminary talks on claims. Why the negativity?

If they are honest with themselves, all three nations would concede they are culpable to greater or lesser degree.

An added risk in the mix is a suspicion in Beijing that the United States is quietly encouraging the Philippines, as it does Japan in an even dicier contest in the East China Sea over the Diaoyu/ Senkaku islets.

In the circumstances, agreement reached at the Asean security meetings in Bandar Seri Begawan for talks to begin in September on a binding code is a step forward, though long overdue.

Notably, it looks like a concession by China. Its new Foreign Minister Wang Yi said negotiations need not take long to conclude if there was goodwill all round.

But realists schooled in the region's complex manoeuvres know progress will be anything but steady. It is wise to suspend judgment on possible outcomes.

Talks to take place in Beijing will be within the framework of an existing pact, the Asean-China declaration on the conduct of parties (DOC) in the South China Sea.

Signed a decade ago, the DOC would have sufficed as an enabler to minimise areas of disagreement if contesting parties had been serious about wanting to move the process forward.

But as the claims intersect issues of history and interpretations of principles, spiced with generous doses of nationalism on all sides, being amenable to intercession was seen as a sign of weakness.

So, there has been little give. Only upon full implementation of the DOC could a binding document on a code of conduct be concluded.

Contending parties should meanwhile desist from acts and rhetoric that could poison the atmosphere for talks. The burden falls on China, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Active diplomacy by Indonesia as Asean's linchpin to help secure a pact should continue, and there is hope the new leadership in Beijing will be more conciliatory in approach. There is a lot riding on having calm seas in the region.