CHINA'S latest rhetorical tactic related to its land reclamation in disputed parts of the South China Sea leaves much to be desired. Clearly, no one is buying the line that the facilities being developed can enhance rescue and relief operations - all the more because the offer comes with conditions and acceptance would be taken as recognition of China's claim. If its intentions were truly humanitarian, it would hand over the facilities to a neutral party to administer pending the adjudication of the disputes.
In the absence of any assurances, the sheer size of the projects - with some of the man-made islands big enough for airstrips for fighter jets - cannot but incite fear in others, particularly those who have overlapping territorial claims with the Asian power. Consequently, one could scarcely blame the world for concluding that China is determined to have its way in the South China Sea and is prepared, when push comes to shove, to keep out claimants by force.
Asean members at their summit last week were justified in stating jointly that the Chinese reclamation works have "eroded trust and confidence and may undermine peace, security and stability in the South China Sea". Not surprisingly, the Chinese were quick to counter this with an accusation that Asean was interfering in a matter that had nothing to do with the grouping as a whole.
This was followed up by the charge that other claimants, including Vietnam and the Philippines, were carrying out "illegal" building on Chinese territory in the Spratlys. In a similar spirit, China claimed this week that Manila's building work in contested areas had violated the 2002 Declaration of Conduct - which states that China and Asean members should refrain from activities that would complicate or escalate disputes. The irony of it all seemed to escape Beijing despite the global focus on the Chinese works. There is now little to stop each of the claimants from asserting its right to build on the islands it claims to be within its sovereignty. As the size of works grows, the ante will be upped and regional tensions will be exacerbated. A mishap or miscalculation could cause these to spiral out of control.
Thus, Asean has every reason to be concerned, especially when building programmes are paired with other troubling actions like China's efforts to block Philippine fishing vessels from entering the disputed Scarborough Shoal.
It would enhance China's stature if it adopts a different approach by coming to the table without delay to forge a binding code of conduct to manage the territorial disputes. Leaving matters unresolved while throwing one's weight around to achieve a fait accompli will only breed distrust and derail the Asian Century.