MANILA, Philippines — The dispute in the South China Sea appears to have come to a draw as it is beyond the power of the ASEAN to resolve the issue, a Singaporean diplomat said.
Singaporean Ambassador-at-large Bilahari Kausikan has questioned the concept of “ASEAN Centrality” as far as the South China Sea was concerned.
“At the strategic level, the [South China Sea] is a stalemate,” Kausikan said in a speech during the Royal Australian Air Force 2018 Air Power Conference last March 20.
“Nobody can make the Chinese drop their claim to almost the entire SCS or make them dig up the artificial islands it has constructed and throw the sand back into the sea,” the Singaporean diplomat said.
He added that the South China Sea has become a “proxy” for the competition between the US and China on their ideas of regional order, given that the ASEAN has “not covered itself with glory in this issue.”
Kausikan warned that Beijing will eventually deploy military assets on its artificial islands in the South China Sea, which may be periodically or permanently.
China, however, cannot prevent the US and its allies from operating in the South China Sea despite the risk of war.
“If war breaks out, those islands and the military assets on them are only targets,” Kausikan said.
A loss or a draw in a war would put the rule of China’s Communist Party at risk while the US remains militarily dominant in the region, according to the Singaporean envoy.
Beijing is unlikely to wage a war against Washington as the preservation of the Communist Party’s rule is at the core of their interests.
“The stakes are too high. Stalemate in the SCS is not ideal, and militaries must plan for worst-case scenarios,” Kausikan said.
“But in most situations short of war — that is to say for the purpose of day-to-day diplomacy — stalemate preserves maneuver space for smaller countries,” he added.
No ASEAN claimant will be forced to give up their claims in the South China Sea as long as the US maintains its presence as an off-shore balancer, according to Kausikan.
As President Donald Trump took office last year, the US reaffirmed its alliances with Japan, South Korea and Australia. This further allowed the US Navy’s 7th Fleet to conduct freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea and challenge Beijing’s claims.
The Trump administration’s strategy in the region was “done so without quasi-metaphysical public debates about whether a particular action was really a FONOP.”
Singapore, sitting as ASEAN chair this year, has shared the same concerns with US ally Australia in the South China Sea.
Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong earlier said that both Singapore and Australia have a vital interest in freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea. Both countries are not claimants in the contested waterway.
“As ASEAN Chair and country coordinator for ASEAN-China relations, Singapore will work with all parties to find common ground so that we can manage the disputes and overlapping claims,” Lee told Australian media last month./ Patricia Lourdes Viray (philstar.com) – April 3, 2018 – 5:39pm
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