South China Sea: PM Lee says we don't take sides but analysts say otherwise

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By: 永久浪客/Forever Vagabond

Last week, in his visit to Japan for a bilateral summit with Japanese PM Abe, PM Lee discussed the South China Sea issue with Abe (‘Singapore welcomes a more active Japan in region: PM Lee‘).

Speaking to the media later, PM Lee again reiterated that Singapore is a non-claimant state and does not take sides on the competing territorial claims in the South China Sea. But he also said that he wants to see “a rules-based regional and international order” be protected.

This order, he said, “upholds and protects the rights and privileges of all states, and shows full respect for legal and diplomatic processes in the resolution of disputes.”

Analysts: Singapore has taken sides

However, many Chinese are not buying into PM Lee’s assurance that he is “not taking sides” in the territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Prof Zhu Feng, the executive director of the China Centre for Collaborative Studies of the South China Sea and also dean of the School of International Relations at Nanjing University, wrote an opinion piece which was later published on the Chinese edition of the influential Financial Times on Tues (4 Oct).

In particular, Prof Zhu noted that Singapore has already taken sides:

新加坡虽然在嘴上说它在南海诸岛和海洋权益争议问题上“不选边”,但新加坡对南海争议解决方式上早已“选好了边”。这是因为新加坡的外交和安全政策永远都是“选边”的。新加坡是美国的军事盟国,美国在樟宜有驻扎有军舰。新加坡允许美军从2015年起使用新加坡空军基地起降美国最先进的P-8空中侦察机监视南海。

新加坡总理李显龙9月29日访问日本时在日经国际论坛上发表主旨演说,大谈新加坡“不会在各方之间讨巧”,新加坡对中国崛起和东亚地缘战略局势变化的“忧心忡忡”,其实都反映了新加坡在地区政治和安全事务中早已“选好的边”。

(Translation: Despite its frequent declarations of neutrality on the disputes over the SCS islands and maritime rights, Singapore has clearly chosen sides, as evidenced by its foreign and defence policies. Singapore is a military ally of the US and has allowed US littoral combat ships to be stationed at its Changi Naval Base. In addition, the US was granted approval to deploy its P-8 air reconnaissance aircraft from Singapore’s Paya Lebar Air Base to conduct surveillance in the SCS.

After delivering a keynote speech at the Special Session of the Nikkei 22nd International Conference on The Future of Asia on 29 Sep, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told reporters that Singapore must never be seen to be “playing multiple sides” on an issue. He also “worried” over China’s rise and the geopolitical situation in East Asia. These remarks show that Singapore has already “chosen sides” on regional politics and defence issues.)

US backs Philippines and wants China to recognize tribunal’s ruling

Indeed, the US has always wanted China to recognize an international tribunal’s ruling against its sweeping claims in the South China Sea. Hence, China is suspicious of any associations with the US over matters on South China Sea.

When the ruling was announced by the international arbitration panel on South China Sea issue in Jul, the US Secretary of State John Kerry signaled that Beijing must recognize the ruling against its claims when negotiating with the Philippines over South China Sea disputes (‘U.S. Backs Philippines in Call for South China Sea Talks‘).

After the tribunal’s ruling against China, Mr Kerry went to the Philippines to show US’ support for the Philippines. Speaking in the Philippines, he then backed Manila’s assertion that any talks over the sea must have that ruling as its basis.

“Our friend and ally, the Philippines, can only do so (talk) on terms that are acceptable to the government of the Philippines,” Mr Kerry said on behalf of the Philippines.

China rejects the ruling entirely and objects to any talks that is based on it. The Philippines refuses to negotiate on that basis, leaving any talks in limbo.

China, Russia hold South China Sea war games

Meanwhile, China has gone ahead to hold large-scale war games with Russia in the South China Sea three weeks ago. The exercise began on 13 Sep and concluded on 19 Sep.

Dubbed Joint Sea-2016, the Chinese and Russian naval maneuvers involved the use of both warships, aircraft and marines in practice combat operations — a clear sign Beijing continues gearing up for a future potential military conflict with the US over China’s territorial claims in South China Sea.

During the exercise, both Chinese and Russian naval forces practised taking over islands.

It was the largest joint exercises since the two navies began holding the war games and the first in the South China Sea. Chinese military officials described the war games as “a strategic measure” aimed at increasing military and especially naval cooperation.

No doubt, if war really breaks out between China and US over South China Sea, Singapore’s Changi Naval Base and its Paya Lebar Air Base will be among the first to be targeted, thanks to PM Lee’s “neutrality” stand.