China's image has taken a knock in recent years due to its strident and muscular sovereign claims in the South China Sea and it will have to reconsider its approach, senior Singapore diplomat Ong Keng Yong said yesterday.
"China, with 1.3 billion people, says it owns everything in the water (of the South China Sea)," Mr Ong said in his special address at The Straits Times Global Outlook Forum.
"The reaction to what it has done in the South China Sea for the past two years or so, whether in Asean or around the world, seems to be a net minus for China's image," he said, referring to China's creation of islands by reclaiming reefs in the South China Sea, whose sea lanes carry almost US$5 trillion (S$7 trillion) worth of trade each year.
Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan also claim parts of the waters. Manila has brought its dispute with China to an international arbitration court, a move backed by the US.
Mr Ong doubted that China, which wields much influence in South-east Asia as Asean's largest trading partner, would ever give up its claim on the sea. "I don't think they will give up. Chinese position is always to preserve and protect its sovereignty," he said.
Professor Huang Jing of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy said China's assertiveness in the South China Sea was in tandem with its growing stature. He said: "It's only in the past five years that China has acquired the capability to project power in the neighbourhood and that power is growing.
"China will not and cannot hide this growing capability to control the situation in the neighbourhood. That's why the South China Sea dispute, which has been there for many years, has suddenly become a centre of international collisions in the past three to four years."
Still, the stand-off, which saw a US warship sailing close to an artificial Chinese island in disputed waters last month, is less gloomy than it seems, Mr Ong said. "I think they (China) have to try to figure out, going forward, how they can recalibrate their positioning."
And for all the hostility on the issue, Mr Ong said China and the United States are unlikely to let the situation get out of hand, as a closer scrutiny of recent events shows.
Commenting on Washington's despatch of a warship close to a Chinese artificial island last month in what Washington said was a move to reinforce the principle of freedom of navigation, Mr Ong said: "What you see is not what you get. Before sailing there, the Americans had already called the Chinese to tell them they're sailing there.
"Chinese President Xi Jinping, when he visited Singapore earlier this month, said China has never said freedom of navigation in the South China Sea would be impeded. So they (China and the US) are testing each other out."
Both Mr Ong and Prof Huang agreed that, for Asean, staying united and negotiating behind the scenes with China remains the best course of action. Mr Ong noted that the two sides have had 10 meetings on cooperation based on the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea they signed in 2002, as well as negotiations towards a Code of Conduct.
Singapore's position, noted Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam in comments earlier at the forum, is to do what is right.
"Our position isn't simply to get along with everyone but to state what's right and the primacy of international law," he said.