Manila's South China Sea arbitration against Beijing 'not wise'

FREEDOM OF NAVIGATION CRITICAL: Singapore's primary consideration is to ensure freedom of navigation in the region, particularly through the Strait of Malacca and Singapore, which is by far the busiest sea lane in the world... - MR GEORGE YEO, on why
FREEDOM OF NAVIGATION CRITICAL: Singapore's primary consideration is to ensure freedom of navigation in the region, particularly through the Strait of Malacca and Singapore, which is by far the busiest sea lane in the world... - MR GEORGE YEO, on why the presence of the United States in the region has been a central consideration for Singapore.

South China Sea spat is a political issue and cannot be resolved legally, says ex-minister

It was "not wise" of the Philippines to launch mandatory arbitration against China over their South China Sea territorial spat, said Singapore's former foreign minister George Yeo, calling it a move that cannot resolve what is at heart a political issue.

Appearing on a talk show shown on Monday night on Chinese state broadcaster CCTV, Mr Yeo was asked about the South China Sea disputes between Beijing and several Asean nations, and the arbitration case brought by the Philippines in early 2013 against China.

He described the circumstances under which China was taken to arbitration as "controversial", adding he thought it was not wise of Manila to do so because he did not see how it would solve the problem.

"In essence, it is a political issue between China and the Philippines. It cannot be solved legally or legalistically," said Mr Yeo, who served as foreign minister from 2004 to 2011.

Pointing out that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea was established not to establish territorial boundaries, he said: "At the core of the South China Sea conflict is really territory."

Currently chairman of Hong Kong-based Kerry Logistics, Mr Yeo said in the Dialogue talk show that one reason for Manila's move could be the legal tradition it shares with the United States in invoking the law to solve problems.

"I respect their views for this, but I never thought it was a wise move because I did not think it would create better relations between the Philippines and China, or between Asean and China," he said.

The Arbitral Tribunal at The Hague's ruling on July 12 invalidated China's territorial claims over 80 per cent of the South China Sea and its maritime entitlements in the Spratly island chain.

But Beijing rejected the ruling, saying the tribunal acted beyond its jurisdiction in deciding on matters involving territorial sovereignty.

China, which had refused to take part in the proceedings, has also described the case as a ploy by the West to hurt its rise and image, and criticised countries urging it to abide by the outcome.

Singapore has also come under fire recently after comments and actions by its leaders and officials were viewed in China as its support for the ruling and efforts to keep the focus on the South China Sea issue, despite not being a claimant.

On the recent friction between Singapore and China, Mr Yeo said there will be problems from time to time but both sides are mostly aligned on the big issues.

For instance, he said Singapore has always supported China's policies of reform and opening up, and described China's One Belt, One Road initiative as "a great blessing" for South-east Asian states.

Asked if countries in the region are worried at having to choose between China and the US, Mr Yeo said no one in Asean wants China as an enemy but the countries are seeking diversification "because China is big and they are not so big".

He said he thought former Philippine president Benigno Aquino overshot a bit in one direction and he is worried that President Rodrigo Duterte "may be overshooting in a different direction", when asked about the latter's recent visit to China that is seen as a pivot to Beijing from Washington.

Mr Yeo said Singapore has sought to be good friends with all nations, citing how it rejected a request by Washington to form an alliance.

He also dismissed suggestions that Singapore allowing the US military the use of its facilities was akin to forming an alliance.

"Singapore's primary consideration is to ensure freedom of navigation in the region, particularly through the Strait of Malacca and Singapore, which is by far the busiest sea lane in the world...

"The presence of the US in maintaining the freedom of navigation has always been a central consideration for Singapore. I think China's interests are aligned with this, they are not against it," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 09, 2016, with the headline 'Manila's arbitration against Beijing unwise: George Yeo'. Print Edition | Subscribe