China's approach in the South China Sea for three decades has been to assert its claims and outlast any resistance. It moved into Mischief Reef in the Spratlys in 1995, three years after the American withdrawal from bases in the Philippines. Before that, it occupied the Paracels - after a skirmish with Vietnam which claimed some 80 Vietnamese lives - when Russia, Hanoi's ally, was otherwise distracted. Should the world see these as stray events in the narrative of China's largely peaceful spectacular rise, and thereby tacitly normalise its assertions in the South China Sea? The danger is that this will shape a world order where relations are determined mainly by size. As a former Chinese foreign minister noted not too long ago, some countries are big and some are small, and that is the way it is. Such an approach will inevitably create fear and resentment which in turn can spark conflict. That is why China should desist from thinking that might is right where its interests are concerned. If the exercise of might is tolerated in the South China Sea, more speedy landfilling is likely in areas held by China and, so too, the building of military installations. It was reassuring to read of President Xi Jinping telling United States President Barack Obama that China had no intention of militarising those areas. Yet, missiles have now appeared in the Paracels.
Quite a lot of what nations do can be interpreted in terms of their insecurities. In China's case, much has to do with its fear of encirclement. This could be why it is hastening to consolidate itself in the South China Sea before the international arbitration tribunal in The Hague rules on the complaint from the Philippines. China's moves suggest it expects the tribunal, which it boycotted, to deliver a ruling that would go against its claims. This is a pity. As the world's most populous nation and No. 2 economy, China should realise that the "my way or the highway" approach can lead to global instability, which will threaten its own future position. After all, international rules helped its own economic rise - witness how expert it has been at using the World Trade Organisation's dispute-settlement mechanism. Such rules cannot be ignored at whim. An approach based only on its own interests can alienate others and is not in keeping with a nation that is admired for taking the long view. Witness how quickly Myanmar, once so aligned with Beijing, is turning against China's presence in the nation. Philippine nationalism once used to be defined by opposition to the US. Today, China is the bogeyman. What's more, every nation in its periphery is rapidly building up its military on account of the signals it is emanating. Many of these neighbours are developing nations whose priorities ought to be nutrition, education and public health, not weapons. It would be a sad day for Asia if ploughshares are turned into swords, rather than the other way round.