Seek higher ground amid rocky seas

FOR the second year running, the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, a gathering of defence chiefs, was overwhelmed by South China Sea issues. This time, the focus was on the actions of several claimants, notably China, to reclaim vast areas of land and thus change the status quo to their advantage. The United States, not a party to the dispute but increasingly involved nevertheless, says China has added more than 810ha. This is several times the combined reclamation conducted by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Taiwan, which, along with Brunei, lay claim to islands, reefs and other features in the area. Making things worse, Beijing also claims most of the South China Sea, but declines to clarify precisely where that claim extends.

Fears that it next may declare an Air Defence Identification Zone in the area - an option it will not rule out - spread worry about unfettered access to what is arguably the world's most important shipping route. With the US asserting its strategic rebalance to Asia and some countries in the region lining up to ink significant security agreements with it and Japan, the optics look increasingly dismal. Alongside the unwelcome prospect of Asia hosting the next Cold War is the real threat of clashes at sea, accidental or otherwise.

No South-east Asian nation grudges China its weighty role in the world. China's increasing prosperity has offered a rising tide for the region's boats to be lifted.

While it fought wars in the 1950s (Korea), 1960s (India) and 1970s (Vietnam), it has not been in a major conflict since 1979. These factors commend it to be regarded as a benign power. Yet, thanks to its actions since 2009, when it began asserting claims to vast stretches of ocean based on history rather than law, tied those claims to domestic nationalism and began elbowing aside smaller nations like the Philippines and Vietnam, China has sometimes come across as an insecure, even dangerous, power. The cost, as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, could be soured ties with South-east Asia.

The solutions stare everyone in the face. An immediate halt to reclamation by all concerned would top the list. Beijing also has to show sincere commitment to signing a binding Code of Conduct with Asean on the South China Sea. Meanwhile, sticking to the spirit and letter of the 2002 Declaration of Conduct of Parties would provide some proof of its good intentions. Dropping its unwillingness to have its claims tested against international law would, of course, be the biggest step forward of all. When it comes to issues over territory, submerged or otherwise, it is not unwise to also consider the moral high ground.