Unlike last year, when sparks flew at the ASEAN Regional Forum meeting after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Washington had an interest in the resolution of territorial disputes in the South China Sea, this year’s 27-nation forum was relatively calm as China evidently sought to maintain good relations with the United States.

On the eve of the meeting, held this year in Indonesia, China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations reached an agreement to establish new guidelines on implementing an agreement they signed in 2002 regarding conduct in the South China Sea. The guidelines, which are not legally binding, mark a step forward in a prolonged process to arrive at a regional code of conduct at a time when tensions have risen because of territorial disputes between China and several Southeast Asian countries, especially the Philippines — an American ally — and Vietnam.

Speaking in Indonesia, Mrs. Clinton, without naming China, deplored the “increasing of intimidation actions, of ramming, of cutting of cables,” and welcomed the new accord.

While China claims virtually the entire South China Sea, the American official, citing international law, said such claims should be “derived solely from legitimate claims to land features.”

Interest in the tiny uninhabited islands, including reefs, shoals and cays, stems largely from the belief that the area is rich in natural resources, such as oil and gas.

China has been asked to clarify its claims but, so far, the signals are mixed. While most articles in the official press still emphasize Chinese sovereignty claims, an article by a Shanghai academic, Cai Penghong, seemed to back off the most expansive claims by saying that “except for territorial waters and exclusive economic zone areas” the waters of the South China Sea are “maritime commons or high seas.”

However, it is clear that China intends to continue to build up its naval capabilities around the world. One military specialist wrote recently that “the lack of deep-sea combat capability cannot meet China’s need to safeguard its maritime rights and interests in the East and South China Seas.”

The latest accord may earn a brief respite but Vietnam and the Philippines are likely to go ahead with exploration and drilling activities despite Beijing’s warning not to drill in areas it claims.

While China was successful for years in telling its neighbors not to worry about its “peaceful rise,” events in the last year have heightened apprehensions in ASEAN capitals, with some openly calling on the United States to balance China.

The logical path to take is to allow the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea to issue a ruling on the legal disputes, but China for one refuses to go that route.

One proposal that China has made, and which in theory is still on the table, is to set aside territorial differences and agree to joint development of natural resources.

This is something that Deng Xiaoping, then China’s paramount leader, proposed to Japan in 1978 as a way to resolve their dispute over the Diaoyu, or Senkaku, islands. However Japan, which controls those islands, has never agreed to joint development there, though it has agreed in principle to joint development elsewhere in the East China Sea.

As for the South China Sea, the nations involved have shown little interest in joint development. Even the Philippines, which is militarily puny, has taken the position that “what’s ours is ours.”

The new guidelines provide a glimmer of hope. They contain a clause which provides that, “pending a comprehensive and durable settlement of the disputes, the parties concerned may explore or undertake cooperative activities.”

Since a “comprehensive and durable settlement” is not in the cards, the best option is for all parties concerned to take a serious look at the possibility of joint development. Unilateral moves to develop disputed areas are likely to result in incidents, including military clashes.

If all parties involved agree to set aside territorial disputes in favor of joint development, they must accept maintenance of the status quo. No attempt should be made to change the status quo, either by unilateral exploration or by changing the military balance.

Such an agreement is urgent. China is steadily building up a blue-water navy, including aircraft carriers. But China does not want a hostile neighborhood, which would be an impediment to its continuing economic development. Thus, it should be willing to accept compromises that are fair to all parties concerned.

In the end, it is obvious that if war is to be avoided, joint development is the only option.

Frank Ching is a Hong-based journalist and commentator. Contact him at: Frank.ching@gmail.com Twitter: @FrankChing1

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