Negotiations the only way forward

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 May, 2012, 12:00am

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A demonstration outside the Chinese embassy in Manila had the potential to inflame a stand-off over territorial claims in the politically sensitive South China Sea. Thankfully it passed uneventfully, except for a foiled attempt by one protester to burn a Chinese flag. That would have been a provocative affront to nationalist sentiment. It is to be hoped that quick action by the police to prevent it, along with a small turnout, can be taken as signs that beneath its assertiveness, Manila is reconciled to the reality that the door must be left open to negotiations over ownership of Huangyan Island, also known as Scarborough Shoal. That is the path that China has chosen, with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, to resolve multiple claims to the Spratly Islands.

Huangyan, a ring of mostly submerged rocks rich in marine life, concerns only Beijing and Manila. The Philippines cannot confine the dispute to issues of location - inside its exclusive economic zone - or closer proximity to its nearest land mass. Many generations of mainland fishermen have worked the waters of Huangyan. China has repeatedly named it among its possessions - without contest - since well before and after the People's Republic was founded in 1949. The Philippines has only recently claimed sovereignty on the grounds that the island lies within its exclusive economic zone. As a Chinese foreign ministry official argued on these pages on Saturday, territorial ownership in international law does not turn on proximity alone.

These arguments cannot be resolved by whipping up nationalist sentiment on either side. Chinese and Filipino fishermen have until now co-existed peacefully around the island. Yet a month ago, the Philippines opted for assertiveness in the form of naval intervention with Chinese fishermen. That just aggravates the risk of confrontation in a resource-rich sea to which six governments lay competing claims.

It is unclear what prompted President Benigno Aquino to adopt this approach. Speculation centres on an opportunistic response to renewed strategic interest in the region shown by the US, with whom the Philippines has a defence pact, amid China's growing power and influence. But the stand-off has coincided with a visit to the US by China's defence minister for friendly bilateral talks. Indeed, the US has urged restraint and called for negotiation without coercion.

Manila should not stir up trouble in the expectation that the US will come to the rescue. In a presidential election year, the US would be reluctant to antagonise China. And with a generational leadership change coming up, China's leaders would not want to be seen as weak on foreign policy issues - especially sovereignty. Hopefully, indications from the Philippine foreign ministry of a new proposal to ease friction will bear fruit. Negotiations are the only sensible way forward.