Asean nations should first resolve island claims among themselves

Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte's resignation to China's militarisation of reclaimed islands in the South China Sea merely illustrates how Beijing's gunboat and cheque-book diplomacy can wear the resistance of even a staunch patriot down to cynical pragmatism (Duterte says China 'already in possession' of South China Sea, tells US to end military drills, The Straits Times Online; Nov 15).

Trading nations and countries who believe in a rules-based world order must have the zeal to resolve all conflicts according to international law.

To that end, Asean claimant states should redouble efforts to address their respective overlapping claims among themselves first and foremost.

For example, they can draw some lessons from how Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia have managed their differences on similar issues.

If China is truly sincere about de-escalating tensions, then it should consider tackling the challenge at source by withdrawing all its military assets from the artificial islands as the basis for negotiating a maritime code of conduct.

These islands may then be transformed into a joint Asean-China humanitarian and disaster recovery installation to support a sustainable fisheries, oceanic and maritime industry modelled on those in northern Europe, for example.

This was what Beijing had reassured the world when it started reclamation work some five years ago.

It is time for the country to live up to its rhetoric, including at the recent Apec Summit in Papua New Guinea, when Chinese President Xi Jinping said that "confrontation, whether in the form of a cold war, a hot war or a trade war will produce no winners" (Xi: 'Protectionist actions doomed'; Nov 18).

Toh Cheng Seong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 21, 2018, with the headline 'Asean nations should first resolve island claims among themselves'. Print Edition | Subscribe