The inaugural Asean-China Defence Ministers' Informal Meeting was an achievement for both parties, coming after an increasingly tense period that began in 2009. That was when China circulated maps claiming almost the entire South China Sea and ignited indignation. The informal meeting, which follows a similar one that Asean nations held with the United States last year, came into reality after it was endorsed by Malaysia, as chair of the Asean Defence Ministers' Meeting.
That Malaysia's armed forces chief should loudly complain about China's "unwarranted provocation" just before the gathering is emblematic of the worries of key regional states, even those positively inclined towards Beijing. The nine-dash claim may have been prompted by China's insecurities, which have been aggravated by US surveillance just off its shores. But in East Asia, it triggered recalculation of strategic priorities and provided the opening for the US "pivot" to Asia.
Soon, Indonesia, the largest Asean nation, will publish its updated defence white paper. There is little doubt that China will loom large in its strategic calculus and that South China Sea issues will top the agenda at the summit on Monday between Indonesian leader Joko Widodo and US President Barack Obama.
China has vast financial resources and some of it is being deployed for economic diplomacy. It recently signed a deal to provide Indonesia with a high-speed railway on terms that no other nation could match. Yet, as the Indonesian defence paper may show, putting minds at ease is another matter. Peace has to come with a sense of security born of honour, not fear of a regional overlord. And here, Beijing has the bigger responsibility to reassure the world that passage through established sea routes will not be disturbed.
With a third of global trade in goods passing through the stretch of water between the Malacca Strait and the East China Sea, every regional state has a stake in keeping this fairway of commerce non-militarised and open for navigation. Beijing, with its slowing economy, would be unwise not to acknowledge its interdependence with the region. After all, more than half of China's exports are produced on behalf of parent companies in Japan, South Korea and even Singapore. Informal meetings offer opportunities to employ language that may be off the table at more formal shows. It is time to stop talking past each other publicly. On its part, Singapore is not unsympathetic to China's strategic concerns and has urged it to test its claims in the South China Sea against international law to help settle the matter. That could facilitate steps by parties to explore joint development of the region's resources. Meanwhile, China would do well to take decisive moves to ink a binding Code of Conduct with Asean on the South China Sea.