The risk of military conflict in the South China Sea between China and the United States is high and tensions are rising. In the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, amid discord on a wide range of issues and shortly after both held naval exercises in the area at the same time, American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has raised the stakes to even more worrying levels by ending his country’s silence on territorial disputes in the contested waters. His siding with Southeast Asian nations over Beijing was to be expected, as was the foreign ministry’s angry response, but weighing in on so sensitive a row is a further unnecessary provocation that puts the rivals and their allies on a dangerous course. With relations arguably at their worst and seemingly spiralling out of control, there is every need for a diplomatic solution, no matter how remote that may appear. Beijing has wasted no time in assuring Southeast Asian countries, with President Xi Jinping phoning the leaders of Singapore and Thailand and Foreign Minister Wang Yi contacting his Philippine counterpart. Washington’s refraining from commenting on the South China Sea issue had made a peaceful agreement between China and its neighbours on the various sovereignty claims more possible. Increasingly frequent sailings of US warships through the contested waters were voiced in terms of ensuring freedom of navigation in the busy shipping lanes. South China Sea: key moments in a decades-long dispute But Pompeo discarded the US’ position last week, describing Beijing’s claims to parts of the resource-rich seas as “completely unlawful”, aligning for the first time with a 2016 tribunal ruling by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which has not been acceded to by the US. Neither side is blameless, but US President Donald Trump’s administration has taken an increasingly antagonistic approach towards China on a widening range of issues. It has blamed Beijing for the coronavirus pandemic, an unproven claim that is in the way of cooperation to develop a vaccine. The Sino-US relationship is among the most important in the world and talks improve understanding. A meeting in Hawaii last month between China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, and Pompeo, was an opportunity to explain positions and visualise limits. Wang recently laid out a strategy in which he proposed Chinese and American think tanks draw up three lists detailing areas of cooperation and discord so that disputes could be managed and their impact on relations minimised. Restraint is a sensible course and also a form of diplomacy. Pursuing the alternative makes no sense when the world’s most pressing agenda should be fighting the coronavirus on two challenging fronts, health and livelihoods. Dialogue, not confrontation, is urgently needed to avoid crossing red lines.