China has to learn to "play by the rules" and the Philippines must sharply boost its defences to keep South China Sea territorial spats from escalating, two former US officials said Friday.
The Philippines has consistently accused China of aggressively pressing its claim to most of the South China Sea, even up to the coasts of neighbours like the Philippines, raising tensions in the Asia-Pacific region.
Speaking at the sidelines of a maritime security forum in Manila, ex-US defence undersecretary Walter Slocombe stressed that no one wanted to see a confrontation with China over territory.
"We (military allies the Philippines and the United States) must find a way to defend our interests and our sovereignty, the rule of law and the proposition that issues like this are to be resolved peacefully and not by the threat of the use of force."
He warned: "There is a real danger of an incident blowing up and becoming a source of a much bigger conflict."
Dennis Blair, former commander of US forces in the Pacific, added: "We have to convince China that as it involves the rest of the region and the world in solving its problems, it has to play by the rules whether those rules are in business, diplomacy or in military force."
Both men said they could not fully explain why China was now pressing its territorial claims.
It could be a case of leaders manipulating nationalism, a mistaken assumption that the United States was withdrawing from Asia, or even the belief of some important Chinese figures that "China should run the world", Slocombe said.
China's restiveness had produced negative reactions, said Slocombe, who was in the Pentagon when Bill Clinton was US president. "In a very short time, China has made the US very popular in the Western Pacific."
But while the Philippines is relying on the United States to back it up against China, Slocombe said it must also undertake a serious effort to develop "a minimum deterrent military capacity".
"The Philippines needs to do a strategic analysis of what it needs to do for its maritime defence," added Blair, the US Pacific commander in 1999-2002.
This would include a multi-year programme to acquire modern weapons, properly train its personnel and develop military doctrines and mechanisms, and "organise itself in a more effective manner".
Such a programme for the poorly-armed Philippines "will not only support its relations with China but will find a much more willing and able and ready partner from its treaty ally, the United States", he added.