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Asean could bear fallout from giants’ dispute over South China Sea

Disputes over the South China Sea spilled into the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) last year, disrupting the harmony among the 10-member grouping who had to confront the elephant — or, in this case, panda — in the room: China.

(From left) Malaysian Premier Najib Razak, Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah and Indonesian President Joko Widodo at last September’s Asean Summit. Asean member nations are either part of the South China Sea dispute have been drawn into the geopolitical drama. Photo: Reuters

(From left) Malaysian Premier Najib Razak, Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah and Indonesian President Joko Widodo at last September’s Asean Summit. Asean member nations are either part of the South China Sea dispute have been drawn into the geopolitical drama. Photo: Reuters

Disputes over the South China Sea spilled into the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) last year, disrupting the harmony among the 10-member grouping who had to confront the elephant — or, in this case, panda — in the room: China.

Asean is sailing through choppy waters at a time when China is becoming more assertive in the region and there is also great uncertainty over United States President-elect Donald Trump’s policy towards Asia.

Making matters worse is the rocky relations between the two superpowers, with international relations experts drawing comparisons with the Cold War era, when countries were forced to choose sides.

So when it comes to the South China Sea issue, most experts paint a bleak picture as they look ahead into 2017, predicting that temperatures in the disputed waterway — where some 70 per cent of the world’s shipping trade passes through — will only heat up.

Washington and Beijing will continue to compete for influence in the region, as Asean’s much-vaunted centrality is thrown into question now that the Philippines, the Asean chair, is making overtures to China.

“Tensions in the South China Sea would likely rise in 2017 due to the overflow of Sino-US rivalry into the region. China may use the South China Sea to register its displeasure towards the US over Trump’s initial overture to Taiwan,” said Dr Tang Siew Mun, head of the Asean Studies Centre at the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute.

And with China seizing an American unmanned underwater vehicle in international waters in the South China Sea some two weeks before the New Year, Asean may need to walk the tightrope to ensure that tensions between the superpowers will not affect regional stability.

China’s latest aggressive moves, including its militarisation of islands in the disputed waterway and Mr Trump’s vow to take a more hardline approach in dealing with Beijing, will affect “regional stability and changes the military calculations” in the area, added Dr Tang.

Despite the increasing friction, some experts believe a major conflict is unlikely, as the strategic interests of the various stakeholders are now more linked than ever before.

Drawing a parallel to the Cold War, when US and then Soviet Union competed for influence in the region, Dr Lim Tai Wei, senior lecturer at SIM University, said this is not the first time South-east Asia has had to face great power engagements and rivalries.

But Asean countries have greater intertwined interests with both the US and China now compared with during the Cold War, he said, adding: “There is now even less incentive to engage in military encounters and conflicts. Between the US and China, intertwined interests are even stronger.

“Asean’s centrality (in terms of driving regional diplomatic processes) can be preserved if it continues to promote peace and cooperation in the region, providing dialogue platforms for major powers to discuss their interests ... while the US, China and other major powers take some time to reach an equilibrium in power relations at a time of geopolitical changes.”



At the crux of the issue is the tussle between China and the US in the South China Sea. Ties have been strained over the past few years, exacerbated by Beijing’s island building and militarisation in the disputed waters.

Washington has responded by beefing up its military presence in the area and carrying out freedom of navigation patrols, challenging China’s unilateral claims to sovereignty.

China claims most of the South China Sea and has constructed more than 1,214ha of land atop reefs in the past few years. Beijing has also built runways on artificial islands in the Spratlys. Other claimant states in this dispute are Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines as well as Taiwan, which is the only non-Asean member.

The election of Mr Trump as US President last November has only intensified the tension. Following his attacks on China both in the run-up to his election and after his win, China-US relations appeared to have fractured, especially after the billionaire’s protocol-bending phone call with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen.

China regards Taiwan as a renegade province, to be taken back by force one day if necessary.

While China has been restrained in its verbal responses despite Mr Trump’s continued criticisms of the Asian giant, it has retaliated strongly in action.

In early December, China flew a nuclear-capable long-range bomber through the South China Sea in what it called a normal flight operation. This was followed by the seizure of the American drone although China returned it days later.

On Boxing Day, a group of Chinese warships, led by the country’s sole aircraft carrier, entered the top half of the South China Sea after passing south of Taiwan in a show of strength and what China termed as a “routine exercise.”

At the same time, fresh concerns emerged over China’s increased military presence in the energy-rich South China Sea, with reports last month that Beijing has deployed weapons such as anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems on its artificial islands in the waterway that it maintained were “appropriate and legal”.

Amid all these tussles, Asean had the unfortunate front-row seat. But it was no mere spectator, as member nations were either part of the dispute or unwittingly drawn into the geopolitical drama.

Its unity came under scrutiny in the middle of last year when a joint statement issued by the grouping’s foreign ministers failed to mention an international court ruling invalidating China’s expansive claim in the South China Sea.

With the region expected to be going through “much volatility” this year, Associate Professor Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said Asean’s credibility will depend on how it engages with the two giants — China and the US.

“Asean will shoot itself in the foot if (its unity) starts to fray. Sometimes, it is wiser to maintain one’s unity by not moving too fast or strongly on any issues, sometimes it is better to take a wait-and-see approach,” he said.

The reality is that Asean’s image as a neutral group could be affected with Manila at the helm, given Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s close ties with China. Mr Duterte’s pivot towards China may be why his country decided not to protest against Beijing’s move last month to further militarise its man-made islands in the South China Sea. Neither will the Philippines press China on the international tribunal’s ruling on the disputed waterway.

There are signs that Asean is already in trouble, with members unable to come up with a common position on the South China Sea.

Some Asean members do not seem to care much about militarisation in the waterway as it does not affect their national interests, while some, like Singapore and Indonesia, are more concerned, said Professor Zhang Baohui, who is with the Department of Political Science at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University.

“Inevitably this may suggest greater paralysis of Asean,” he said.



Yet, there is some hope for peace as China has set a deadline for concluding negotiations with Asean for rules of conduct in the South China Sea by the middle of this year.

Prof Zhang believes China will be “more eager” now to participate in the legally-binding Code of Conduct (COC) to “enhance its image as a team player”, after being accused of dragging its feet.

Asean and China have been negotiating the COC since 2010, but Beijing had in the past insisted on dealing with individual claimant states rather than Asean on overlapping claims.

The Philippines’ warmer relations with China may be an impetus for Beijing to facilitate the framework’s finalisation, as Manila is not likely to push “divisive proposals” on the waterway, said Professor Jay Batongbacal, director of the Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea at the University of the Philippines.

“The Philippines (despite being a claimant state) is not expected to become any kind of stumbling or impediment to Asean’s handling of the COC framework,” he added.

Mr Perfecto Yasay, the Philippines Foreign Minister, said last month that “revitalising” ties with China was one of Mr Duterte’s priorities and the government was working to build “confidence and trust” with China.

However, Dr Peter Layton, a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, noted that China will conclude negotiations on the COC’s framework only when it has achieved what it wants. “China has been stalling since 2002, so maybe it will conclude in 2017, or might not,” he said.

Going forward, the growing sense of geopolitical uncertainties will make Singapore’s role as the coordinator of the Asean-China dialogue partner more challenging.

Singapore had several brushes with China last year, including an exchange of words with Chinese state-owned newspaper Global Times over the South China Sea issue in September and the seizure of Singapore’s armoured troop carriers by Hong Kong customs en route back from Taiwan in November.

As a result, Singapore would need to tread even more carefully, said Dr Collin Koh, a naval expert from the Maritime Security Programme at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

It is going to require “a tight balance of competing interests” — to ensure the unity of Asean and handling an assertive China and to maintain its close defence and security partnership with the US.

“Notwithstanding Beijing’s stance, clearly Singapore is not going to abandon this close partnership with the US, and it would continue to encourage the US under Trump to stay committed to help maintain Asia-Pacific peace and security,” Dr Koh added.

The common economic interests in the form of the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade pact may help to lower temperatures in the region. The RCEP has taken on additional importance since Mr Trump has vowed to jettison the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement once he takes office on Jan 20.

But Mr Manu Bhaskaran, founding CEO of Centennial Asia Advisors, said that common interests in the RCEP may not lead to improved political dynamics, noting that the security compulsions driving China’s assertive stance in the South China Sea appear to be very important in the minds of Chinese policy makers. “It is unlikely that they will downgrade those concerns in order to achieve an RCEP agreement. Given that countries such as Malaysia and the Philippines are shifting closer to China anyway, why would it have to do so?” he said.

Prof Andrew Delios from the Department of Strategy & Policy at the National University of Singapore’s Business School agreed, saying that events from the past few years have shown that China is willing to subjugate economic objectives for political ones.

“China’s actions and political objectives in the South China Sea will remain superordinate to economic objectives. Trading agreements will not smooth concerns about China’s quest to position itself as the dominant and unquestioned power in East and South-east Asia,” he said.

“Instead it will only build China’s position as a leader (by pushing for the RCEP), with the result being greater power to push its political and colonisation objectives in the South China Sea.”

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