There is too much at stake at the Shangri-La Dialogue taking place this week in Singapore particularly with the escalating trade war between two superpowers, which now threatens to boil over into the South China Sea.
The protracted dispute between China and the US that seeks to divide their sphere of influence in the region is now reaching an inflection point and the presence of officials from both countries at the conference would provide the right opportunity to break the impasse.
A case in point is the US Navy guided-missile destroyer deployed near the Scarborough Shoal, a sea feature occupied by China since 2012 but claimed by the Philippines as part of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
The deployment was the destroyer’s second freedom of navigation (FONOP) near the shoal this month, maneuvers which pointedly challenge China’s recent militarization of the waterway.
China has also doubled down on its military and para-military deployments in the South China Sea, prompting concerns about potential clashes with smaller claimant states.
The dispute would lead to smaller nations taking positions as “the Titans’ clash” and this is likely to threaten Asean centrality. It is time for Asean to state its stand in a lone voice and ensure that its centrality remains intact.
US President Donald Trump had already said that the US will unveil a new strategy to combat China’s maritime ambitions at the dialogue. This comes on the back US aligned nations such as Japan, India, and the Philippines conducting joint FONOP exercises en route to Singapore for the second phase of the ASEAN defense ministers Meeting plus Security Field Training Exercise.
There is already a shared commitment among the four countries to promote maritime cooperation throughout a free and open Indo-Pacific region.
Asean is wary of China’s military might in the region and the US could provide assurances to these countries it will contain China’s military might provided Asean stays united and that its centrality is not compromised.
For a start, the US could prioritise its relationship with four countries in Asean notably Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and Vietnam that are wary of the Chinese and seek a commitment from other Asean countries that seeking additional concessions from the Chinese will not compromise Asean’s centrality.
China in return is attempting to negotiate a code of conduct for the SCS with Asean but it is pressing member states to set up bilateral mechanisms and one to one talks with dismissing direct talks with the Asean as a grouping. China appears to be doing everything that go against Asean centrality and this must be questioned at the Shangri-La Dialogue.
Perhaps the US and China could jointly come out with support for the COC that ensures the continuation of the dialogue with Asean as a grouping. The COC must ensure safe passage and freedom of navigation in the SCS and avert any pending obtrusive behavior of either parties.
A salient feature of any negotiations that will result in conflict resolution in the region could be by roping in Japan. Aside from creating the needed balance of power in the region, it is likely that China would heed the decision of the collective in the region considering that Japan is one of the main trading partners of China.
Sathish is an ex-analyst in a think tank in Malaysia