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China not the only one to blame in South China Sea conflict

I share Mr Toh Cheng Seong's view that the South China Sea should remain a free international waterway, unobstructed by politics and militarisation (Trust is what China needs to build; June 11).

However, assigning blame to China alone is an oversimplification of a highly sensitive and complex situation. One could reasonably argue that all parties in the South China Sea dispute must shoulder some degree of blame.

First, China is not the only country to have attempted large-scale land reclamation of low-lying islands as a means of bolstering territorial claims. Other countries have also done so to varying degrees. For instance, a recent report suggests that Vietnam alone has added 49ha of new land to its claimed maritime possessions.

These actions have, of course, deepened distrust on all sides.

Second, the involvement of the United States has only served to provoke China further, making diplomatic resolution even more unattainable.

Having endured repeated invasions and atrocities in its history, China could be forgiven for harbouring a deep-seated paranoia over its own national defence.

Through this lens, American "freedom of navigation exercises" and reconnaissance flights would be seen as a grave affront and precursors to an existential threat, regardless of actual intent. Beijing would, therefore, be reluctant to face what it considers a malevolent party at the negotiating table.

Third, even regional parties with no direct involvement in the dispute are culpable to the extent that they have been unable to provide impartial mediation to soothe tensions.

In the light of this, all nations of the South China Sea region must do their part to build mutual trust. The natural first step would be to cease and desist from inflammatory actions in the disputed areas.

I hope all countries will be able to agree on a legally binding Code of Conduct by the end of the year, which will be a big step towards resolving the South China Sea conundrum.

Paul Chan Poh Hoi

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 25, 2017, with the headline 'China not the only one to blame in South China Sea conflict'. Print Edition | Subscribe