Asean must not be divided by South China Sea disputes

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (second from left) and Asean foreign ministers meeting in Yuxi, China, on June 14.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (second from left) and Asean foreign ministers meeting in Yuxi, China, on June 14. PHOTO: AFP

Asean has been split by the current feud over the South China Sea.

At least four of theorganisation's 10 members have staked claims in the area. China, through its nine-dash line map, stakes out much of the sea south of its huge land mass.

China has quoted historical facts to support its case. That countries did not come forward to dispute its position post-World War II, perhaps lends credence to this order. International agreements made thereafter may have further supported this view.

So what has changed since then?

We witness the Thucydides Trap played out before our eyes - a "battle of wills" between the existing power and a rising power.

That the latter has grown increasingly powerful economically and militarily causes great discomfort, perhaps.

From cooperation, two giants now find themselves competing with each other.

But this leaves smaller nations in the region ambivalent as to which side to align with.

China is a large trading partner of many Asean states. Its vast appetite for resources and its goods serve as important lifelines for many in South-east Asia.

It is unenviable that while these countries benefit economically from China, they have to sit on the other side of the divide on the South China Sea disputes.

Who is a credible force to mitigate the situation?

While China is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), it has said that it will not participate in the arbitration case taken against it by the Philippines. While the United States champions fairness, it has not ratified Unclos.

Setting aside military prowess, who has the moral authority to settle the issue?

Asean has been a successful economic grouping. It became an economic community just this year. The 625 million inhabitants augur huge potential for regional prosperity. Only with peace in the region can they realise their dream of improving their economic lot.

That Asean's unity may be fragmented by the South China Sea disputes is ominous for the well-being of the region.

Thus, Asean should not be politicised. All members should commit to its original mission. The prospect of reverting to a Third World backwater is unfathomable.

All parties should act for the larger good of all. Claimant states should settle their score extraneous to the grouping. Good sense should prevail.

Lee Teck Chuan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 18, 2016, with the headline 'Asean must not be divided by South China Sea disputes'. Print Edition | Subscribe