A miscalculation can pitch the heightened tensions in the East China Sea into a conflagration no one wants to see, Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam cautioned yesterday, adding that wisdom required these disputes be shelved to let commerce continue.
"I think there is a serious risk of miscalculation," Mr Shanmugam said when Straits Times Editor Warren Fernandez asked him for his reading of the rising tensions across the Pacific in a session at the second Straits Times Global Outlook Forum yesterday.
Tensions have escalated rapidly after China's sudden declaration last Saturday of an Air Defence Identification Zone over a vast area that covers islands and territory claimed by China, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea.
In response, the United States, Japan and South Korea defiantly flew military aircraft through the area without notifying China as it demanded. In turn, China sent its warplanes there.
Mr Shanmugam said the situation was worrying. "An incident can easily happen and we, the rest of the world, are to some extent hostage to what some ship captain might do. And how he might get us all involved in a major conflagration that no one wants."
He saw nationalism as the underlying factor in the nations' response. "No leader of any of these countries can be seen to be giving up on territorial sovereignty. Not in China, not in Japan, certainly not in the US, not in Korea."
The way out, he said, would be a return to the old ways of dealing with these kinds of disputes. "It is going to require wisdom to try and deal with this. The most sensible approach would be to say, 'let's put these disputes aside, let's try and deal with them within a platform or framework and meanwhile let's continue to engage each other commercially'."
And that approach is hardly new, he said. "If you dial back 20 years, 30 years, 40 years, back to the (Chinese) leader Deng Xiaoping, he was able to say to the Japanese prime minister, look, let's leave this aside and let's move on with the real business."
Also giving their take at the forum sponsored by ANZ Bank and Mercedes-Benz were this newspaper's overseas correspondents.
ST's former China bureau chief Peh Shing Huei said the move was a miscalculation on China's part, which was obvious when Beijing appeared to have little to say soon after the US flew its B-52 bombers into the zone.
He pointed out that the US chose B-52s - rather than, say, the F-35 stealth fighters - for the mission. B-52s are the biggest planes in the US fleet, he said, with the largest radar profiles, so the message from the US was that "we want you to know", he said.
He noted too that the US launched the B-52s from its territory in Guam rather than from its base in Japan. It was an unambiguous signal that "this is a message coming from the US, not Japan, listen to us", Mr Peh said.