Countries with overlapping claims in South China Sea should aim for win-win outcome: DPM Teo

Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. PHOTO: REUTERS

SINGAPORE - Countries with conflicting claims in the South China Sea should strive for a positive outcome instead of a zero-sum one, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said on Monday (Oct 19).

Should they seek a zero-sum outcome, he said, the disputes will be difficult to solve and may even lead to a negative outcome should a conflict erupt, or a continuing state of tension prevail.

"No one would be able to benefit from access to the potentially vast resources," he said.

"While sovereignty is non-divisible, resource sharing is infinitely divisible. Joint development of the rich resources would allow claimants to share the wealth of the sea."

This is not a novel idea, he said, noting that agreements have been made for joint development or exploration of natural resources in areas subject to overlapping claims. One such example is the Gulf of Thailand, which saw claims involving Malaysia and Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam, as well as Cambodia and Thailand.

Mr Teo, who is also Coordinating Minister for National Security, was speaking at a conference themed "Southeast Asia and the United States: A Stable Foundation in an Uncertain Environment".

The full-day conference at the Fullerton Hotel is co-hosted by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and The Brookings Institution, one of the oldest Washington D.C. think-tanks.

Mr Teo broached the subject of the South China Sea, where tensions have made headlines recently, in a wide-ranging speech that sought to offer a framework to better assess the significance of individual incidents and events. He spelt out three pillars that he saw as crucial for continued stability, peace and growth in the region.

They are trade and economic cooperation, defence and security engagements, and people-to-people exchanges.

In trade and economic cooperation, Mr Teo noted that the number of regional trade agreements worldwide has risen about four times in 25 years - from about 70 in 1990 to more than 270 today.

He added that the successful conclusion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) covering 40 per cent of the world's gross domestic product "looks set to be a game changer".

It is critical that the US Congress ratify the TPP to send a clear signal of the US's continued presence and commitment to the region, he said, adding that China too has expressed hope the TPP will "contribute to the development of trade and investment in the Asia-Pacific".

Singapore looks forward to the day China is ready to join the TPP, he said, even as other regional pacts such as the Asean-China free trade agreement and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership bring trading partners closer.

In defence, there is room for cooperation in areas such as piracy, counter-terrorism and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. These affect not just individual countries but the world, said Mr Teo.

Meanwhile, soft power can also be generated through people-to-people exchanges that build greater understanding and trust, he said. Such exchanges include government-to-government collaborations - and DPM Teo said there are areas such as water conservation, sustainable agriculture and fire mitigation where more can be done.

These can bring benefits not only to individual countries but can have region-wide benefits as well, he added.

Other forms of people-to-people exchanges also include overseas internships and exchange programmes for tertiary institutions.

"These links offer countries a valuable means to project soft power, and to win hearts and minds, through good deeds and the power of ideas, in a way that the projection of military or economic might cannot achieve," said Mr Teo.

Such multi-dimensional interactions, he added, have to be consistent and enduring to have long-term impact.

They also have to be based on international law, and mutual respect for all countries, big and small, to have legitimacy and broad support.

Crucially, the regional architecture must remain open and inclusive, with Asean at its centre, he said.

"The US has been an integral part of this regional architecture for the past 70 years. And we hope that the US will continue to be present in the region, as this will benefit the US, the region, and the world," he added.

Brookings Institution President Strobe Talbott, in his opening remarks, stressed that the Asia Pacific a region of great importance to the world as a whole.

Asia Pacific is characterised by dynamic economic growth, the strategic importance in preserving freedom of navigation, its contribution to the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and Asean's role as a multi-lateral institution.

The success of Asean in "forming an ever tighter community of nations", he said, can be an example to the world in light of the struggles encountered by blocs such as the European Union.