Settle territorial rows through negotiation not confrontation

A worrying series of maritime confrontations between China and the Philippines has been playing out for months in the South China Sea that has threatened to spark a wider conflict. At long last, both sides have sat down for talks in Manila, and while a host of differences remain, they have importantly agreed to de-escalate tensions in the disputed region. The pledge to ratchet down tensions, and the fact that they agreed to keep speaking, are the first positive developments in the relationship for months.

Among the most serious in a spate of clashes at sea was an incident at Second Thomas Shoal in mid-June, during which the Chinese coastguard intercepted a Philippine naval mission to resupply troops stationed on the disputed reef. Eight Philippine sailors were injured in the subsequent clashes, including one who lost a thumb. The US State Department condemned China’s “escalatory and irresponsible actions” and reaffirmed Washington’s obligation to defend the Philippines under a 1951 treaty. It is hoped it will never come to that.

Former ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai, without mentioning Washington, said this week that if there had not been external interference in the region, relations between China and the Philippines would be “much better” than they are now. He called for efforts to eliminate that interference and put bilateral ties back on a healthier and mutually beneficial track.

That may prove to be optimistic, regardless of who wins the US election in November. The administration of Democrat Joe Biden has been highly critical of China’s actions in its dispute with the Philippines and former officials of the Donald Trump administration have called for more active intervention on Manila’s behalf.

Mutual hostility had spiralled to the point that public sentiment in the Philippines had turned overwhelmingly against China, and Chinese social media was awash with anti-Manila sentiment.

Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has adopted a welcome and sensible approach in managing relations between the two great powers. He told the Post last month he would not be caught up in China-US geopolitical tensions or pick sides, and played down territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Putting Malaysian interests first, he would carry on doing business with China, but also had no intention of antagonising the United States.

The right approach to resolving territorial disputes is not confrontation but negotiation. As we have seen, confrontation builds hostility that undermines security and does no good for either country. It is hoped that China and the Philippines can remain at the table and work to resolve their differences in the interests of peace and security in the South China Sea, and in Asia.



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