Collin Koh’s “Asean can no longer afford to be subtle over the South China Sea” (July 4) is a rather bold piece for a Singaporean academic in that it criticises Asean’s very modus operandi, and Singapore is a core and driving member of the group.
I agree with the criticism, but the Association of Southeast Asian Nations is unlikely to change how it does business. Indeed, its accommodation of all views is what makes and keeps Asean whole, and it would lose what influence it has and perhaps even disintegrate without doing so.
As Koh observes, Asean’s opinion has not had an “ameliorating effect” on China’s behaviour. But he neglects to mention that it also has not had that effect on US behaviour either – and that is also a concern for some Asean states, including Singapore.
At the 2019 Shangri-La Dialogue, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong challenged both the United States and China to do better to preserve the multilateral order, calling on the US to make the difficult but necessary adjustments to China’s rise and aspirations and exhorting China to “convince other countries through its actions that it does not take a transactional and mercantilist approach”.
As Singapore’s Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen put it, the challenge for both the US and China is “to offer that inclusive and overarching moral justification for acceptance by all countries, big and small, of their dominance beyond military might.” If their policies are lopsided against other countries’ interests, these countries will “seek other partners”.
The South China Sea dispute explained
Individual Asean members have voiced their specific concerns about both China and US “militarisation” of the South China Sea. After one incident in October 2018, in a veiled criticism of the US use of threat of force to uphold “freedom of navigation”, Ng said: “Some of the incidents are from assertion of principles, but we recognise that the price of any physical incident is one that is too high and unnecessary to either assert or prove your position.”
Neither China nor the US has heeded these concerns and the current situation is a slow-motion drift towards confrontation and conflict. Indeed, the two continue to militarise the South China Sea.
Objective analysts should focus on what is really likely to happen and not just wish and hope, or point out the faults of only one party, while there is plenty of blame – and guilt – to go around.
Mark J. Valencia, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China
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