S. China Sea ruling

All parties need a timeout for now

Filipino protestors hold placards as they protest China's territorial claims over the disputed Spratlys group of islands outside the Chinese consular office in Makati city, south of Manila, Philippines, July 12.
Filipino protestors hold placards as they protest China's territorial claims over the disputed Spratlys group of islands outside the Chinese consular office in Makati city, south of Manila, Philippines, July 12.PHOTO: EPA

The South China Sea dispute has entered the most critical moment after the Arbitral Tribunal at The Hague announced its ruling last Tuesday ("Tribunal rejects China's sea claims"; last Wednesday).

Luckily, the relatively measured and restrained response from all relevant parties immediately after the announcement gave the region and the world a precious breather.

The ruling did not provide any guideline or formula on the process to be taken to solve the dispute. It deliberately left ample space and flexibility for solving the issue peacefully through negotiation.

All parties should understand that the ruling has its limitations in solving the dispute.

They have to examine how other parties and even the rest of the world interpret and evaluate the ruling, and take these different views into consideration before embarking on the next step or making any further assertive statements.

No party should push the other party into a tight corner.

All parties need a timeout or cooling period now. This is a time for reflection, not for taking any hasty unilateral action, or politicising the matter further.

After the breather, let the front-line diplomatic and professional staff resume contact. Go-betweens could be invited to participate. Political decision-makers should stay aside for the time being.

With our advanced technology and economic interconnection, constructive and creative ways to solve international disputes and harness mutual benefits through cooperation are plenty.

The crucial thing is to keep our minds open.

Albert Ng Ya Ken

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 18, 2016, with the headline 'All parties need a timeout for now'. Print Edition | Subscribe