China Daily

No external rowdies key to peaceful waters

Historical and present complexities, as well as increasing third-party interference, determine there is no quick solution to the maritime disputes in the South China Sea. However, as the recent, sometimes violent, run-ins between Chinese and Philippine coast guard vessels near Ren’ai and Xianbin reefs indicate, the need for crisis-management is pressingly acute.

That is why, although it remains to be seen if the promises can be delivered, Tuesday’s ninth meeting under the Bicameral Consultation Mechanism was timely and welcome.

As was to be expected, much of the talk featured the two parties reiterating their respective sovereignty claims and commitment to defending them, with neither side showing any room for compromise, and each blaming the other for the recent incidents.

Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Chen Xiaodong urged Manila to stop its infringements, return to the “correct track” of consultation, and work with Beijing to de-escalate tensions. Philippine Foreign Undersecretary Theresa Lazaro said the Philippines “will be relentless in protecting its interests and upholding its sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction”. As such it was no surprise that both sides conceded no substantial breakthrough was made at the one-day engagement. Nor that “significant differences remain”, as the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.

But that in no way diminishes the meeting’s importance. Both sides emerged from the meeting apparently positive about it, describing the discussions as “frank and constructive” and expressing their hopes that such interaction would be sustained and bear fruit.

Provided both sides are serious about crisis management, the meeting may thus prove to be a good starting point for a whole new round of constructive bilateral engagement, and pave the way for more productive follow-ups. Even more so as both agreed to improve communication and try confidence-building. That is essential if the two sides are to reclaim the precious common ground that has been swept away from beneath their feet by the heightened attention paid to Manila by Washington. That common ground enabled Beijing and Manila to work together to find a negotiated solution to their historical disputes, or at least keep them from ruining overall bilateral ties and derailing domestic development.

It is thus encouraging to see both sides agree to improve communications during emergencies at sea, and enhance ties between their coast guards. Even more important was the two sides’ recognition “that there is a need to restore trust, rebuild confidence, and create conditions conducive to productive dialogue and interaction”, as the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said. The two sides have reportedly agreed to convene an academic forum aimed at facilitating marine scientific cooperation. Considering the ongoing spats at sea, cooperation may not seem realistic in some areas. But attempts at bilateral collaboration, in fields such as maritime environmental preservation, can certainly be conducive to meaningful fence-mending. Any progress in that regard would be constructive and worth supporting.

A huge variable in the way of the two governments’ endeavors for repairing bilateral relations, however, remains Manila’s growing enthusiasm for outsider involvement. The security partnerships it has been establishing and consolidating with extra-regional powers, particularly the United States and Japan, are conspicuous obstacles to its claimed commitment to peacefully resolving the South China Sea disputes. The Philippine government is expected to sign a Reciprocal Access Agreement with Japan this week that is widely believed to have China as the motivation. The agreement will allow troops of the two countries to enter each other’s territory for joint military exercises and strengthened defense cooperation.

If Manila is sincere about its expressed willingness to work with Beijing to maintain stability in the South China Sea, it should stop soliciting the increased presence of the militaries of extra-regional powers, and strengthen dialogue and consultation with Beijing through the Bicameral Consultation Mechanism on the South China Sea and other mechanisms with a view to resolving the two sides’ differences and disagreements.

Editorial, China Daily

Categories China Daily Opinion