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Singapore FM warns of 'bleak' future for ASEAN, Indo-Pacific if SCS tensions rise

Singapore foreign minister warns of 'bleak' future Indo-Pacific if SCS tensions


Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan on Tuesday warned of a “bleak” future for Southeast Asian nations and the Indo-Pacific region if the ongoing tensions in the South China Sea escalate into a full-blown conflict.

Balakrishnan, currently in Manila for an official visit, said the spike in tensions in the contested waters would put the region’s economy at stake, threatening devastating inflationary impact, an increase in insurance premiums, and would waste decades of growth and progress.

“The moment you have an escalation of tension or collisions or military action In the South China Sea, it will immediately impair and impede trade,” Balakrishnan said at a joint press briefing in Manila with Philippine counterpart, Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo.

An economically bustling region of more than 660 million people, the ASEAN comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. The U.S., China, and other Asian and Western countries have taken steps to deepen their overall ties, including security and economy with the region.

Recent aggressive Chinese actions in the South China Sea prompted serious concerns and condemnations from several countries after China’s coast guard vessels blasted water cannons and lasers to prevent Philippine government ships from conducting resupply missions from a shoal that Beijing claims as its own. Incidents of collision between Chinese and Filipino vessels and several injuries from the Philippine side have also been reported.

China has also been blocking Philippine vessels and fishermen and installed barriers at the Scarborough Shoal, which lies within Manila’s exclusive economic zone under a United Nations maritime convention.

Although not a party to the disputes, Balakrishnan stressed that Singapore has been watching recent developments in the South China Sea with “concern.”

“Singapore is not a claimant state in the South China Sea and we do not take sides in the competing territorial and Maritime claims,” he said.

However, as a tiny city-state heavily dependent on trade, Singapore believes the rule of law must prevail to preserve regional peace and security.

“If it is just the law of the jungle, where the powerful do what they will and the weak must suffer, what they must, then the future will be very bleak for Singapore and the Philippines,” Balakrishnan said.

“Singapore's interest is in maintaining peace and stability in one of the world's busiest waterways which is what the South China Sea is.”

A vital trading and shipping lane, the South China Sea, dotted with rocks, shoals, and reefs where rich oil and mineral deposits were found, is claimed in part or in whole by the Philippines, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan. Parts of the waters within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone have been renamed the West Philippine Sea.

China’s vast territorial claims in the waters have sparked tensions and violent confrontations with smaller claimants, like the Philippines and Vietnam.

The Philippines largely won a landmark case against China’s massive claim in the South China Sea before an arbitration tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, but Beijing refused to participate in the arbitration process and recognize the ruling.

“We uphold the right of all states to freedom of navigation, and overflight and support the peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law including UNCLOS,” Balakrishnan said. UNCLOS stands for UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Foreign Secretary Manalo said he and Balakrishnan agreed that “peace and the South China Sea is beneficial to both the Philippines and Singapore, as well as to our entire region.”

“I briefed the Foreign Minister on the Philippine position on the West Philippine Sea, South China Sea, which has been consistent, clear and firmly anchored on the 1982 UNCLOS and the final and binding 2016 Arbitral Tribunal award on the South China Sea,” Manalo said.

“I shared that the Philippines remains committed to peaceful dialogue and diplomacy. We are also committed to making our bilateral mechanisms with other claimant states work.”

While it has expressed concerns about dangerous maneuvers and incidents in the waters, ASEAN, a conservative 10-nation regional grouping that relies heavily on Beijing for trade and investment, tourism, and infrastructure financing, has never rebuked China by name in its statements.

Balakrishnan explained that not all ASEAN states have claims to the South China Sea and cited geographic “proximity in terms of strategic alignment” as a factor.

However, he pointed out “that does not mean that ASEAN as a whole, has no stake in what happens in the South China Sea.”

“Each of us May have slightly different levels of proximity in terms of strategic alignment with one or the other. But I believe ASEAN is united in the sense that no single ASEAN country wants to become a proxy or vessel state Of any power,” he said.

“The most important thing for the whole of us here is to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea because not only it is in our immediate backyard, but it is also one of the world's busiest waterways.” —NB, GMA Integrated News