Trading and migration links between China and its South China Sea neighbours go back centuries, but history, politics and in a number of cases, territorial disputes, prevent the alliances that should have evolved. Recent visits to Beijing by the Philippines' president and Vietnam's deputy defence minister have replaced sabre-rattling with agreements and the promise of more talks. There is now less of a chill in the region, although relations remain fragile. The core problems are going to be difficult to resolve, so the governments need restraint, common sense and a firm resolve to move forward peacefully.
Discord over the disputed Paracel and Spratly Islands was all but set aside for future consultations and negotiations to enable deals to be brokered on less controversial matters.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino went home from his five-day trip with US$1.28 billion in new investments and the hope of billions more. Vietnamese Deputy Defence Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh's talks appear to have cleared the way for a visit by his country's new top leader, Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong, later this year.
They are small steps, but nonetheless significant. Papering over the cracks to move other aspects of a relationship forward are generally a tried and tested way to build trust and lay sound foundations for ties. When a sufficient level of co-operation has been achieved, it is time to tackle the impediments head on. The various territorial disputes and incidents at sea have been disruptive. Taking a step back and trying a different tack is the only sensible approach.
Governments worried about China's dramatic growth and modernisation of its navy, highlighted last month with the long-anticipated launch of the nation's first aircraft carrier, have prompted strategic partnerships with the US. This year there have been an increasing number of maritime incidents involving Chinese ships. A regional arms build-up is under way, especially among those with claims in the South China Sea. Vietnam and the Philippines have taken on new naval vessels and more have been ordered. The region is closely watching developments.
It is too early to determine whether the agreements made in the past few weeks will lead to the relationships moving in new and improved directions. The test will come next time there is another incident at sea or on one of the contested islands. Words alone are never enough in the world of diplomacy. To have real meaning, they have to be backed by deeds and actions. The deals that have been struck are a sound starting point, but they have to be followed through with resolve by all sides.