Restraint, dialogue the key to peace in South China Sea

I agree with Mr Douglas Chua Hock Lye ("Singapore must remain neutral in South China Sea row"; Tuesday).

Sovereignty in the South China Sea is a very sensitive topic.

History has shown us over the last century that when dialogue and collaboration between opposing countries led to a stalemate, wars resulted.

I am concerned that as tensions rise, a regional war may result in South-east Asia; it would be the first in the region since the Vietnam War, which ended in the 1970s.

Many of the countries in South-east Asia have also increased their budgets for military spending in anticipation of the increased risk of war. Previously, the focus of military spending was on mitigating terrorist activities, but we increasingly see governments exercising their rights over their maritime sovereignty.

A recent example is the Indonesian navy protecting its waters from Chinese fishing boats ("Jakarta defends navy for firing at Chinese boats"; Tuesday).

The impact of a war breaking out in South-east Asia would be disastrous economically and socially for Asean nations.

The United States could also be drawn in, widening the conflict.

What can Singapore and other Asean member states which are neutral on this issue do?

First, continue to ensure that dialogue among the disputing countries continues, and that all views are heard.

Second, bear in mind that taking sides with one country pushes the other country to adopt an extreme course of action, such as war.

Third, leverage the United Nations and use the platform to influence all parties to come to a win-win proposition for all involved in the conflict.

Finally, Singapore can step up diplomacy to facilitate continued dialogue and collaboration within Asean, as well as between the US and China.

I hope this is also a wake-up call for Singaporeans that peace is fragile and that our Ministry of Foreign Affairs has an important role to ensure that the region continues to be safe.

Wong Shih Shen

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 23, 2016, with the headline 'Restraint, dialogue the key to peace in South China Sea'. Print Edition | Subscribe