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Calming the waters of South China Sea Randy Wright

(China Daily) Updated: 2016-07-11 09:02

Seldom have so many words been expended per square kilometer of ocean as over a few patches of the South China Sea.

So I am bracing for a word storm rivaling super typhoon Nepartak after an arbitration tribunal registered at The Hague delivers an opinion about the disputed waters this week.

I hope cool heads prevail. Gentle rains foster growth. Hurricanes bring only destruction.

I have no dog in this fight. I'm just an observer, a guest in China, and I don't presume to give advice on a matter that comes down to sovereign territory. But I'll share an insight I gained moonlighting as a mediator for courts in the United States.

The disputes I mediated were of less moment - things like divorces, broken contracts with landlords and partners with tangled assets who want to dissolve a business.

But I found one bedrock principle that applies equally to individuals and nations. It is this: To avoid a shootout, both parties must be willing to give a little - not always equally, but something. Without a spirit of compromise, all the talk in the world will be a waste of time.

As a mediator I never told the parties what they should do. My job was to explore options dispassionately and to find ground acceptable to both. People pay for this service, although a third party shouldn't really be necessary. With a simple willingness to speak respectfully to each other, they could have worked out most troubles on their own.

The biggest speed bump in mediation is a self-righteous attitude. One party indignantly refuses to compromise with "the dirty so-and-so" on the other side. I wasn't troubled because I got paid anyway; and of course world peace is not at risk when the woman in a divorce case demands the house and the man wants the big-screen TV.

Not so in the South China Sea, where the rhetoric and saber rattling fills me with dread. Lesser matters have triggered war throughout world history.

In my view, anybody in their right mind will side with China in its call for civil dialogue. After all, the tribunal has no enforcement power and China has a rational basis, like it or not, for rejecting the process. Any settlement must come down to talk. It's literally the only civilized way out. And the alternative is unthinkable.

Winston Churchill put it succinctly: "To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war."

He was right, but this should not obscure the fact that talk itself is not the goal. Solving the problem is. And that comes down to compromise, whether it's college roommates sharing the rent or nations sharing a sea.

After the tribunal issues its opinion, what happens next? Seems to me there are only two choices: China, the Philippines and other nations either resolve their disputes through negotiations and civilized agreements, or they freeze in perpetual, dangerous ambiguity.

The latter course would be unfortunate. Mankind ought to be mature enough by now to move beyond spats like this for mutual benefit.

Contact the writer at randy@chinadaily.com.cn

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