HomeAsiaAs US, Australia Hang Tough on China, Singapore Seeks Stability

As US, Australia Hang Tough on China, Singapore Seeks Stability

Singapore’s leader on Tuesday appealed for stability in the increasingly tense relationship between the United States and China relations, expressing concern that either the two world powers could clash, or that the U.S. could turn its back on the region.

Meanwhile, the top diplomats and defense officials of allies U.S. and Australia met for annual talks in Washington, and were unsparing in their criticism of China, voicing “serious concerns over recent coercive and destabilizing actions across the Indo-Pacific” in a joint statement.

Australia, which last week took a new tough diplomatic stance rejecting China’s sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea, said its ships would continue to transit those disputed waters, but stopped short of publicly committing to conducting freedom of navigation operations in what China considers its territorial waters.

The U.S. and China have held dueling military exercises in the South China Sea in recent weeks, raising the risk of escalation as more warships operate closely in the disputed waters, where several of Singapore’s Southeast Asian neighbors have territorial claims. The U.S. has accused China of “bullying” other South China Sea claimants, while China on Tuesday repeated its charge that the U.S. is “militarizing and stoking tensions” in the area.

“We worry about two things. One, that you (the United States) may collide with the Chinese in Asia,” Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at a talk hosted by the Washington, D.C.-based Atlantic Council, “and on the other hand you may decide that you have no stake in the region and leave us to our own defenses.”

The city state of Singapore is Southeast Asia’s most prosperous nation, and has historically retained cordial ties with both powers, notwithstanding its close defense partnership with the U.S., which rotates littoral combat ships that often patrol the South China Sea through Singapore.

Lee stressed that Singapore wanted to maintain good relations with China and “very deep” relations with the U.S. “We depend on stable U.S.-China relations in order for us to have a secure, predictable environment in which we can make a living and live our lives,” he said.

The U.S.-China relationship has deteriorated sharply on multiple fronts. In addition to tensions in the South China Sea, the U.S. has taken China to task over security legislation in Hong Kong and its treatment of Uyghur Muslims. Most recently, there have been tit-for-tat closures of consulates amid accusations of spying and intellectual property theft.

Lee asked for “stability and predictability” in the U.S. approach to Asia based on a bipartisan consensus in Washington, so that the policy would endure between administrations, “and people can plan on it and can depend on it.”

One such stakeholder counting on a stable U.S. presence in the region is Australia, a key U.S. ally whose foreign and defense ministers were in Washington this week for the 30th annual Australia-US Ministerial Consultations, or AUSMIN.

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (center) pictured next to the leaders of Thailand and Vietnam at a summit of Southeast Asian leaders in Bangkok, Thailand, in November 2019.
Credit: Reuters

Australia, along with Japan, has taken part in trilateral military exercises in the South China Sea, including when the U.S. sent two aircraft carrier groups on maneuvers there earlier this month.

China, in response, started a live-fire exercise off the province of Guangdong this week, practicing anti-ship attack drills with its air force, according to state media.

At a news conference Tuesday after AUSMIN, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne confirmed that they discussed with the U.S. conducting Freedom of Navigation Operations, or FONOPs, but she did not definitively say Australia would perform them.

FONOPs directly challenge China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea, by sending warships through waters that China claims nearly in their entirety. The U.S. has frequently sent warships within 12 nautical miles of land features China claims.

Payne said her nation has “a long history of transiting through the region unilaterally, bilaterally with regional friends, and multilaterally.”

“Our approach remains consistent. We will continue to transit through the region in accordance with international law,” she said.

Ashley Townshend, the director for Foreign Policy and Defense at the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre, told RFA that Australia has been hesitant to conduct FONOPs, “owing to concerns about Chinese retaliation, uncertainty about America’s capacity to protect Australian ships, and uneasiness about taking actions in support of maritime rights that Southeast Asian claimants themselves have not undertaken.”

But Townshend said Canberra and Washington were increasingly concerned by “Beijing’s persistent use of coercion, intimidation and, in some cases, outright aggression against regional countries in the South China Sea.”

In their joint statement Tuesday, the U.S. and Australia reiterated their respective, closely aligned diplomatic positions that China “cannot assert maritime claims in the South China Sea based on the ‘nine-dash line,’ ‘historic rights,’ or entire South China Sea island groups, which are incompatible with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the news conference that the U.S. would keep working with Australia “to reassert the rule of law in the South China Sea.”

On Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin rejected Australia’s recent declaration that China’s South China Sea maritime claims were illegal. “China firmly opposes the Australian side’s comments which run counter to facts, international law and basic norms governing international relations,” Wang told a news conference in Beijing.

China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, have tried to hash out their differences in the South China Sea through a negotiated Code of Conduct agreement that would govern behavior in the region, as Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia all have claims in the South China Sea that compete or conflict with that of China.

China and ASEAN agreed to resume talks on the Code of Conduct after they were delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic a month ago, and Singapore’s Lee was upbeat about the negotiations but hesitant to say the code would be complete by 2021 as planned.

“I think it’s far better that we are talking about a Code of Conduct and trying to work it out rather than having face-offs at sea, at close-quarters, at risk of collision and escalations,” he said.

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