x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

China - like all of us - needs to compromise

It is not just China that needs to adjust to a multipolar world. The United States, too, should realise that negotiated solutions are preferable in the long term.

Late last month, Chinese fighter jets intruded into Taiwanese air space for the first time in 10 years while shadowing a US spy plane. At the time Taiwan scrambled its own fighters in response and, in recent days, Beijing and Washington have traded tit-for-tat accusations, as they tend to do.

The threat of a cataclysmic war over Taiwan has fortunately receded into the background - barring an act of idiocy - given strengthening trade ties and China's growing role in geopolitics.

It is a different era than when the Kuomintang fled the mainland at the end of the civil war. Now it is neither desirable nor possible for the United States to control every inch of international waters, containing a "Red menace" that belongs to history.

And so China is pursuing its own ambitious naval programme, and no country builds a blue-water navy except to support strategic goals. What Beijing intends to do with that power remains to be seen.

What is sure is that competing powers have to find new ways to resolve disputes, preferably based on compromise. One of the most pressing issue involves the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, long valued for fisheries and now known to be rich in offshore oil.

China, voracious for resources, has abrogated the 2002 code of conduct that it forged with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to manage the competing South China Sea claims of China, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.

In fact, China declared unilaterally last year that the whole South China Sea was an area of non-negotiable "core national interest". Responsible powers do not operate in this way. Some observers think China has moderated its behaviour in the region since; China and Asean signed a new South China Sea procedural accord just this month.

The obvious long-term solution to the Spratlys question is a negotiated split of resources. It is a lesson that applies elsewhere as well. Last week the United States called for such a bilateral settlement between Lebanon and Israel to govern exploitation of offshore gas and oil reserves. A similar deal could be worked out among circumpolar states avid for Arctic oil.

It is not just China that needs to adjust to a multipolar world. The United States, too, should realise that negotiated solutions are preferable in the long term. And, we hope, smaller nations like those in Asean can find their common interests to stand up to the big powers on the block.