International Asia Will the South China Sea conflict be the focus of this year's...

Will the South China Sea conflict be the focus of this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue?

Asia-Pacific countries don't have a choice but to smoothen out things.

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It is clear that the simmering conflict in the South China Sea will be the focus of this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue although the forum may unfortunately end without concrete results to solve the tensions between China and the United States in the hotly contested water ways.

While the annual forum in Singapore is not a place for resolving such tensions, the delegates and defence chiefs scheduled to take part in the discussions should at least raise the issue.

There is a lingering trade war between the two superpowers and this has now escalated into a full-blown dispute between the US and China, with the US blacklisting China’s popular telco brand Huawei Technologies Co while Beijing is threatening to block US access to rare earth.

The resistance from Huawei is a sign that China is not ready to give in to the demands from the US and Beijing has made it clear it will only make a deal if it is fair, and not one that favours the US.

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However, there is another more important issue closer to the Asean region, and it is the potential clash on the highly contested seas now under tight control the Chinese.

China has stormed into the South China Sea by force, bulldozing its way through and bullying the smaller nations or submitting them to its domination.

Asia Times warns there is a more meaningful superpower clash and that it will likely be at sea, adding that the conflict to come is the one that will happen in the South China Sea.

With this in mind, it is imperative for this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue to ponder on this threat. The Asean surely would not want a war in its front yard, certainly not another war with international parties involved.

And, they have to consider the developing crises in the Persian Gulf and the rising tensions in the Taiwanese straits involving the Americans again.

Since the end of the devastating Vietnam war, the countries that suffered the most — Vietnam and Cambodia — still bare the scars.

Another war, this time on the seas, may become the epitome of a series of conflicts that may directly impact Asean member countries jn the forefront of the South China Seas conflict.

Signs are emerging from a benign trade war between the two richest economies in the world and the potential for a military conflict is in the making.

To that effect, it is the first time China is sending its defence minister General Wei Fenghe to the annual event since Liang Guanglie attended in 2011.

General Wei Fenghe, who doubles as a state councillor, will deliver a “highly anticipated” speech at the upcoming IISS Shangri-La Dialogue on the morning of Sunday, June 2.

Fenghe will speak on China’s place in the Indo-Pacific region and will take questions directly following his address. Sources say the speech could be pivotal but would China make concessions on the South China Sea?

Beijing is negotiating a code of conduct for the South China Sea with the Asean but, in between, it is pressing Asean member states to set up “bilateral consultation mechanisms” that will ensure one-on-one talks between China and individual Asean members thus dismissing direct negotiations with the Asean as a grouping.

Malaysia seems to have rejected this offer and is insisting it would rather have a group discussion about the disputed waters with Asean.

This shows how China is manipulating the issues in the South China Sea and why it is time for the Asean to put its centrality first, and to confront China with questions on its seriousness on the COC. A first draft of the COC is to be ready by the end of this year.

Amid rising tensions between the US and China, the dialogue might focus more on conflict resolution in the South China Sea.

The IISS Shangri-La Dialogue is a landmark defence summit in Asia where ministers debate the region’s most pressing security challenges, engage in important bilateral talks and come up with fresh solutions together.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore has also agreed to deliver the Keynote Address to the 18th IISS Shangri-La Dialogue on Friday 31 May.

Defence ministers, military chiefs and top-ranking defence officials from across the Asia-Pacific and other countries are among the participants. This year’s summit will take place from May 31 to June 2.

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