South China Sea territorial disputes a major issue for ASEAN

Posted on September 6, 2012

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Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong

BEIJING: Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has acknowledged that competing territorial claims in the South China Sea is a major issue for ASEAN.

He said the credibility of the regional grouping would be severely damaged, if ASEAN does not address the problem.

Mr Lee was speaking at the Central Party School in Beijing, where he gave a speech entitled, “China and the world – prospering and progressing together”.

He said ASEAN should not take sides but instead adopt a position that is neutral, forward-looking and encourages the peaceful resolution of issues.

He believes the 6-point principles, proposed by Indonesia and accepted by ASEAN, achieve this.

Singapore also hopes that ASEAN and China will soon begin talks on a code of conduct in the South China Sea.

Prime Minister Lee noted that many countries were watching to see how China manages difficult problems with its neighbours, taking it as a sign of what China’s rise means for the rest of the world.

ASEAN, Mr Lee said, is also being watched to see if the regional grouping can deal effectively with difficult issues.

He added that even though Singapore does not take sides in the South China Sea issue, the nation does have certain critical interests at stake.

Firstly, as a small country, it is in Singapore’s interest for international disputes to be settled peacefully, and in accordance with international law.

Secondly, freedom of navigation is also of fundamental interest to Singapore, given the importance of trade and the South China Sea to the country’s continued survival and development.

Thirdly, as a small Southeast Asian country, ASEAN is critical to Singapore.

Mr Lee said Singapore’s security depends on a peaceful and stable Southeast Asia, which in turn depends on a cohesive ASEAN.

He said ASEAN must remain united in order to exercise influence on the international stage, to have its voices heard, and to secure and advance its common interest.

But if ASEAN is weakened, Singapore’s security and influence will also be diminished.

Mr Lee noted the many overlapping claims by multiple claimants in the South China Sea are unlikely to be resolved any time soon. Sovereignty disputes are complex and hard to resolve, and no side can easily abandon their claim without high political costs.

Mr Lee called on all sides to avoid escalating tensions or precipitating confrontations that will affect the international standing of the region.

He said a divided or discredited ASEAN will force member states to choose between major powers. It will also turn Southeast Asia into a new arena for rivalries and contention.

Noting that no one wins in such a situation, Mr Lee argued that ASEAN has a key role to play in maintaining regional stability. He said major powers are comfortable to let ASEAN take the lead, and let it be a fulcrum for discussion and cooperation.

“But this requires an ASEAN that is united, effective, and friendly with all the major powers, including China,” said Mr Lee.

Mr Lee added that China has actively engaged ASEAN, and ASEAN countries not only welcome China’s engagement but are also keen to expand the scope of this mutually beneficial partnership.

Prime Minister Lee pointed out that China has a strategic interest in a stable and prosperous Asia. A thriving neighbourhood will be a valuable partner in China’s development, and a source of investments and raw materials.

Maria Siow

Tensions simmering between U.S., China over uninhabited islands’ ownership

Japan’s move to buy several nearby uninhabited islands Wednesdaywas intended to maintain relative peace with China, which also claims ownership of the islands.

But the decision is likely to inflame China-Japan relations further, as disputes between the two countries over the territories have escalatedin recent months.

Timeline: Disputes in the South China Sea

Now, the United States has been drawn into the debate, as Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao warned Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton Wednesday that, “the United States should respect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

By “sovereignty,” Wen was referring to territorial disputes that have become major flash points between China and its neighbors. The United States has been increasingly vocal in supporting a less belligerent, collaborative negotiation process,” the Washington Post’s William Wan reported.

The U.S. has so far avoided taking an official stance on the islands’ ownership, although diplomats have been asked to take sides. A Chinese reporter gained fame on Chinese social networks last weekafter pressing U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland on whether the U.S. considers the islands to be Chinese or Japanese.

Reporter Ran Wei from China’s state Xinhua News Agency began by asking Nuland for the official U.S. name for the uninhabited islands, which are known as the Senkaku islands in Japan and the Diaoyu islands in China:

RW: What is the official name for the Senkaku Islands for the United States? Is it the Diaoyu Islands or the Senkaku Islands? Or both are okay?

VN: I’m going to my special little rocks cheat sheet here because, this is getting quite complicated with different things here.

RW: Yes, do you have one?

VN: So, make sure I get it, get it right here… So… As we’ve said, we call them the Senkakus, so, if that’s the question that you’re asking. We don’t take a position on them though, as we’ve said all the way through.

The reporter then pivoted to asking whether the islands are covered by a defense treaty between the United States and Japan, which would imply the United States considers them to be Japanese. Nuland reasserted the official, neutral line and moved on to another question.

RW: So you don’t take a position on them, but on the other hand, you think that the islands are covered by the defense treaty between Japan and the United States, right?

VN: Yes, we’ve consistently said that we see them falling under the scope of Article 5 of the 1960 U.S.-Japan Treaty.

RW: Do you think that is contradictory? ‘Coz for me, that sounds contradictory. You said you don’t have a position on the sovereignty of the islands, but on the other hand you said it’s covered under the Treaty, which only protects Japanese territories.

VN: But this is because the Senkakus have been under the administrative control of the government of Japan since they were returned as part of the reversion of Okinawa since 1972.

RW: So let me rephrase my question: Do you regard the Islands as Japanese territory?

VN: Again, we don’t take a position on the Islands, but we do assert that they are covered under the treaty.

RW: So you think the Islands is under the administration of…

VN: I think I’ve answered the question. Let me call…

RW: No, you don’t have…

Commentators on Sina Weibo, a Chinese microblogging network,applauded the journalist for his bravery.

“Many people say that asking the U.S. government for its stance on the question of a Chinese territory may make us seem very unconfident,” one commentator wrote. “But isn’t it the reality? From the actual effect of what was in that video, compared with the diplomatic language we are used to, questions like his are actually more direct and can gain respect from others easier.”

Washington Post

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