Region Needs a United Front

The Khmer Times, 6 June 2016

As expected, the United States and China engaged in a war of words again last weekend at the Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore, an annual security conference organized by the London-based Institute for International and Strategic Studies (IISS).
The US is normally given a privilege to speak at the first plenary session. The US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter reiterated the US commitment in Asia by calling for a strengthening of an inclusive “principled security network” in which every country can contribute to maintaining regional peace and stability.
Mr. Carter harshly warned China over its strategic intentions and ongoing activities in the South China Sea.
“China’s actions in the South China Sea are isolating it, at a time when the entire region is coming together and networking,” he said. “China could end up erecting a Great Wall of self-isolation,” he added.
The US also urged China to respect the upcoming ruling by the UN Arbitral Tribunal with regards to the South China Sea case submitted by the Philippines but boycotted by China.
“The United States views the upcoming ruling by the UN Arbitral Tribunal on the South China Sea as an opportunity for China and the rest of the region to recommit to a principled future, to renewed diplomacy and to lowering tensions, rather than raising them,” stated Mr. Carter.
Speaking at the fourth plenary session yesterday, Deputy Chief of the Joint Staff Department of China’s Central Military Commission, Admiral Sun Jianguo, calmly responded, stating “the Asia Pacific countries should refuse the Cold War mentality.”
“China isn’t out to stir trouble, but neither is China scared of trouble,” Admiral Sun said. “China will not stand for its sovereign rights to be trampled on.”
“The South China Sea’s freedom of navigation hasn’t been impeded because of the territorial disputes,” he added. “We stress peaceful negotiations through legitimate means in resolving any disputes.
“In fact, China is open, inclusive and a responsible country, it is a participator and constructor and contributor to the current international system,” Admiral Sun said. “We are not isolated and we will not be isolated in the future.”
The US-China confrontation has caused a strategic dilemma for regional countries, particularly small countries in Southeast Asia. Southeast Asian states are facing an uphill struggle to maintain unity and the central role of Asean.
Two of the claimants to territory in the South China Sea, the Philippines and Vietnam, have built strong defense and military ties with the US and Japan as part of their deterrence strategy against an increasingly assertive and powerful China.
Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia have shown varying levels of support to the US presence in the region in maintaining peace and stability.
“The US presence has pre-eminent power globally and in this region for the last seven decades, has provided conditions for stability. It has always been here, and it’s here for the foreseeable future and will continue to be a global power,” said Singaporean Defense Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen last week.
However Cambodia and Laos, which are regarded as natural allies of China, have been reluctant to push the agenda on the South China Sea simply because their economic dependence on China is relatively high.
Similarly, Brunei, Myanmar, and Thailand are not interested in allowing the disputes in the South China Sea to dominate Asean-China relations and regional security architecture. They wish to see a smooth dialogue among the claimants and between China and Asean on the Code on Conduct over the South China Sea.
In his keynote address at the Shangri-La dialogue on Friday, Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha gave emphasis to the implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct on the South China Sea (DOC) and an early conclusion of the Code of Conduct (COC).
He said “the claimant states must take every opportunity and use every platform and should have the political will to resolve this issue.”
However, the China-US rivalry will continue to evolve in a more confrontational and unpredictable trend. The South China Sea is the most apparent ground for these two powers to compete and confront each other.
Historically, global power transitions go through war and violence. If it remains the case for the US and China, then the Asia-Pacific will face high security risks. Southeast Asian countries will be further pulled towards these two camps.
A survival strategy for Southeast Asian countries is to ensure that Asean stays united and is enabled to strengthen its regional role in promoting trust-based, norms-based and rules-based international order.
Asean needs to get its house in order first before proving its regional security relevance.

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