Rival territorial claims to natural resources under the South China Sea make disputes and incidents on the surface inevitable. The potential for mishaps and misunderstandings that can lead to serious conflict means a framework for avoiding and containing them is paramount to regional peace and stability. A case in point is the fallout from a collision between a Chinese vessel and a Filipino fishing boat in the Reed Bank, an energy-rich area within the Philippine exclusive economic zone and China’s territorial claim. It serves as a wake-up call to finalise a code of conduct for ships and planes in the disputed sea. Hopefully it will be heard when Asean leaders hold a summit this weekend in Bangkok.
Philippines lodges protest with Beijing over South China Sea ‘hit and run’
Depending on who you listen to, the collision was a hit-and-run sinking of the Filipino boat by a Chinese vessel that abandoned the 22 crew in the water, to be rescued by a passing Vietnamese boat, or an “ordinary maritime incident” as Beijing called it. It said the Chinese vessel was “besieged by seven or eight Filipino vessels”, leading to the collision and its inability to rescue the fishermen.
Feelings are prone to run high after such incidents. What set this one apart was silence and then a soft response from Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte that echoed Beijing’s line – “just a collision of ships” – after his foreign affairs and defence secretaries had blasted China for “contemptible” and “cowardly” action respectively. A military spokesman described it as a “hit and run” that was “far from accidental”. Just a day later officials in Manila began to play down direct accusations against China. The contradiction is a reflection of Duterte’s balancing act between avoiding tensions with Beijing and risking political backlash at home. Such incidents do nothing for his ability to build public support for friendly relations.
‘China’s not to be trusted’: Philippines’ Rosario wades into sinking row
This is a reminder if one were needed of the urgency of the draft code of conduct negotiated by China and Asean nations to avoid accidents and misunderstandings and uphold freedom of navigation. Seventeen years after agreeing to set it up, the issue of whether it is legally binding remains an obstacle. The parties must redouble efforts to overcome it. Meanwhile all sides must strive to avoid incidents that test trust and goodwill fundamental to the code.