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Sage advice from Secretary Kerry

JUST when our prospects for peaceful relations in the South China Sea appeared to be at their lowest, sage advice has come from United States Secretary of State John Kerry.

Speaking on the sidelines at the regional security forum of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in Vientiane, Laos, Secretary Kerry said the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) on the South China Sea is final and binding and based on international law, but it is time to move on, seek new ground.

He disclosed that China Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who was also at the Vientiane forum, had asked him to lend his support for talks to restart between Manila and Beijing. “The foreign minister said the time has come to move away from public tensions and turn the page. And we agree with that,” Kerry said. “No claimant should be acting in such a way that is provocative. No claimant should take steps that wind up raising tensions.”

The Philippines, it must be pointed out, has taken no further steps that might exacerbate the situation. After the PCA issued its ruling that rejected China’s nine-dash-line claim to most of the South China Sea, President Duterte immediately invited former President Fidel V. Ramos to lead a Philippine effort to talk with China’s officials – not to press any claim but to explore areas where we can work together as two neighboring nations with common interests.

President Ramos has long been known for his close relations with some of China’s leaders as one of the founders and leaders of the Boao Forum for Asia which meets annually in Boao in Hainan province, China. Here the leaders of 26 Asian and Australiasian states meet with business and industrial, academic, and other leaders in high-end talks on economy, society, environment, and other issues.

At the end of their meeting in Vientiane, the ASEAN foreign ministers issued a statement urging countries to exercise self-restraint in their activities in the South China Sea and avoid provocative actions on its islands, shoals, reefs, and other features. This was obviously a reference to China’s building of runways in some of the islands. But there was no actual mention of the PCA ruling.

This has been criticized by some quarters who believe ASEAN should have taken a stand in support of its members whose interests clash with those of China on this matter. But it is perhaps best that no further attacks or criticisms be made of any nation at this time. As we said earlier, the Philippines has already won its point with the PCA ruling and would be wise to step back and take time to think of what to do next, accepting that we must continue to live with our giant neighbor to the northwest.

The US evidently shares this view as indicated by Secretary Kerry’s advice aired at the Vientiane forum. We welcome this growing consensus that it would be best for all concerned to turn the page, to seek new ground, to move on.