China does not want the South China Sea dominating discussion at the Asean Regional Forum, which opens in Phnom Penh today. It would prefer that Southeast Asian nations and their dialogue partners not put the territorial disputes on the agenda and instead resolve them bilaterally. But with tensions emerging with Vietnam just as a row with the Philippines is easing, concerns of escalation, rising nationalism and a resurgence of interest in the region by the US, the matter cannot be avoided at the Asia-Pacific's top annual political and security meeting. It is therefore crucial that they discuss the issues rationally and work together.
There is no chance that disputes that have been boiling for decades will be settled quickly. A code of conduct to work towards a peaceful settlement is the best way forward, but a draft document seeking international mediation has understandably displeased China. Tabling it at the two-day meeting should not mean an end to the discussion or more acrimony. With regional peace and stability at stake, what is needed is reasoned dialogue and level-headed diplomacy.
But while no side wants confrontation, especially at a time when the European economic crisis is threatening another global financial meltdown, the events of recent months make progress challenging. Vietnam's passing on June 21 of a law reasserting its claims to the Spratly and Paracel islands was followed by China upgrading a county-level administration in charge of governing the South China Sea to a new prefecture, Sansha. The state oil firm CNOOC then announced it was opening nine blocks for international oil and gas exploration, offers Vietnam contends come to within 68 kilometres of its coast. Although China and the Philippines have pulled naval and fishing vessels back from a contested shoal, the dispute still simmers. Taiwan and Asean members Brunei and Malaysia maintain their claims, while the US is shoring up regional alliances as it reasserts its presence.
The forum was envisaged by the Association of South East Asian Nations as a way of creating dialogue with the region's powers, China and the US the most important among them. Its objectives are to foster discussion and consultation and build confidence, and preventive diplomacy. Some members believe it is at a crossroads - torn between taking on the region's most challenging security issues or maintaining Asean's long-standing preference to steer clear of confrontation in favour of decisions based on consensus. How the code-of-conduct document is handled will determine the way forward.
With tensions so high, no side can afford to further inflame matters by opting for antagonism. There is too much for the region to lose should conflict erupt. Discussion has to be measured, reasoned and above all else, constructive.