SINGAPORE – As Chinese President Xi Jinping heads to Washington this week to meet with some of the world’s biggest powers, one of Asia’s smallest countries is urging him to match China’s economic clout with better leadership on the security front.
Singapore views China’s rise in Asia with “sublime acceptance,” Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen said Thursday in an interview. “It’s a fait accompli,” he said. “You cannot contain China.”
Still, he said, “there is a distinct difference if you think about it, if you look at it, between how the Chinese assume leadership and even initiatives in the economic arena versus the security arena.”
He highlighted China’s contrasting approaches: While it is looking to make investments in roads, railways and ports in Southeast Asia via a new maritime Silk Road trading route to the Middle East and Europe, and leads a new Asia infrastructure bank, its land reclamation activities and increased military presence have sparked tensions with other claimant states as well as the U.S. in the contested South China Sea.
China is one of the biggest trading partners for many Southeast Asian nations. That trade has stayed robust in the face of the South China Sea disputes and political friction between China and the likes of the Philippines and Vietnam. Yet surveys often show how its actions in the maritime sphere undercut that economic goodwill, with China scoring low on trust among citizens in the region.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned last May that smaller countries don’t want to be squeezed by competition between China and the U.S. for influence, or feel they have to pick a side. Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said late last year that while the major powers are welcome in Southeast Asia he hopes they will not create “a situation that will increase tensions.”
It is a dilemma Xi himself has publicly acknowledged: In a speech in Singapore last September, he said security cooperation was “out of step” with economic collaboration, and called on nations to “never let animosity” divide them.
Under Xi, China has stepped up efforts to assert control of the South China Sea, building islands that offer possible military bases. While its coast guard has been accused of harassing boats from other countries and it has warned planes by radio to stay away from reclaimed reefs, China has also promoted the construction of facilities as potentially assisting in navigation for ships and providing quick disaster relief.
Xi touts the South China Sea actions as part of a broader return by China to great power status, a stance that has seen tensions increase with the U.S., a country that has dominated the postwar security order in Asia. Xi will join leaders including U.S. President Barack Obama this week for a nuclear summit in Washington, where a bilateral meeting with Obama is scheduled.
China claims more than 80 percent of the South China Sea based on a so-called nine-dash line drawn on a 1940s map for which it gives no precise coordinates.
The waters host more than $5 trillion of shipping each year and are home to about a 10th of the world’s annual fishing catch. Some of the sea is also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.
“Whatever their foreign policy is, it’s clear their position has hardened positions on countries around Asia and ASEAN,” Ng said, referring to the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian nations.
He cited several examples, including Vietnam allowing a Japanese submarine to call at a port and the Philippines permitting a greater U.S. military presence. “Would that have happened without the Chinese position?” he asked.
The dilemma for some Southeast Asian nations has been highlighted by recent scuffles involving fishing vessels and coast guards.
Indonesia, which like Singapore is not a claimant in the South China Sea and has sought to stay neutral in the disputes, was forced to publicly chastise China this month after an incident involving a fishing vessel it said was detained in its waters. In the ensuing melee, a Chinese coast guard ship rammed the fishing boat that was under tow by Indonesia in a bid to free it.
At the same time, China is Indonesia’s largest two-way trading partner and President Joko Widodo is relying on it to fund much of his country’s infrastructure needs. China is building a high-speed rail link between Jakarta and Bandung.
There need to be rules for countries of all sizes to buy into a stable overall system, and the South China Sea is a test case of that, said Ng. He urged countries to extend an agreement for unplanned encounters at sea from the navy to the coast guard.
Referring to China, he said, “We accept that your position as a leader will have to be recognized and that there will be new rules, but China has to decide what these new rules are.”
“We’re realistic enough to recognize that you will never have a situation where there are no disputes, we’re not in Utopia,” Ng said. “Disputes should be settled peacefully and you need mechanisms for that. We’re in the phase where we are trying to build mechanisms that prevent such escalation.”