Countries contesting China's claims in the disputed South China Sea should not underestimate the legality of Beijing's arguments, said Mr George Yeo, Singapore's former foreign minister and current chairman of Hong Kong-based Kerry Logistics.
"China's claims are not weak… I can understand the force of feelings from South-east Asian countries but it would be a serious mistake to underestimate the legality of China's claims and therefore underestimate their will," he said yesterday during a panel session at the World Economic Forum on Asean held in Kuala Lumpur.
Citing Beijing's assertions that its claims in the contested waters date back to the Qing dynasty, Mr Yeo said that countries did not earlier object to China when it drew the controversial nine-dash line. Beijing uses the nine-dash line to mark a large swathe of the areas in the South China Sea that it claims.
But the region's increasing reliance on China has created an air of concern over the economic powerhouse's influence in Asean, causing some member states to strengthen ties with the US.
"No one wants China to be their enemy because there's a big loss. But everyone wants US to be their friend," said Mr Yeo at the panel session on "Battling over Asia's Economic Architecture", which was moderated by The Straits Times associate editor Ravi Velloor.
Professor Zhu Feng, executive director of the China Centre for Collaborative Studies of the South China Sea at Nanjing University, said that the unsurpassed growth seen in China over the last decade has made its geopolitics tricky.
"The past few decades had seen China become a big elephant… The consequence is there's a growing awareness that the region is watchful of what China will be," said Prof Zhu. Four South-east Asian countries are in a tussle with China over parts of the South China Sea - namely Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
The territorial disputes heightened over the past year as China increased its activities by building structures on several contested islands and the US navy conducted patrol exercises near the disputed waters.
Prof Zhu said the Chinese view on the issue is largely attributed to "domestic nationalism" - a stand Beijing reiterated often under President Xi Jinping's leadership to ensure the Chinese Communist Party's support.
The presence of two superpowers in the region has added pressure to Asean member nations which have been caught in the middle as they try to manage their independence along with their economic growth. The United States has also entrenched itself with the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, which includes four South-east Asian countries, while siding with Vietnam and the Philippines in their claims against China over the territorial disputes.
"If (the) US is not in the region, South-east Asia would have a weak negotiating position. But if the US is too close, we would be pawns on a chessboard," said Mr Yeo.
"Instead of being in control, we lose the game… If we (Asean) maintain solidarity, we would know how to play this game," he added.
Malaysia's International Trade and Industry Minister Mustapa Mohamed said focusing on "income, peace, stability and quality of life" marks the "best policy" for countries wedged between two influential nations.
Discussion also centred on the various trade agreements that appear to be either US or China-led. Mr Yeo said the agreements are all akin to different "clubs" that countries join.