The risk of a clash in the South China Sea lies with non-military ships, Singaporean Minister of Defense Ng Eng Hen said, as China deploys more heavily armed coast guard vessels in the disputed waters.
Singapore has joined other nations in the region and the US in warning the reliance on fishing boats and coast guards to assert territorial claims in the South China Sea raises the prospect of an incident. China has used its so-called “white-hulled fleet” to chase and shoo ships including fishing boats from other countries away from the reefs it claims.
A practical concern for nations whose ships travel through the area — it is a key shipping lane that carries as much as US$5 trillion in trade a year — is how to develop processes to defuse incidents as they occur, Ng told reporters on the sidelines of a meeting of Southeast Asian and US Ministers of Defense in Hawaii.
“It may have, in fact, very little to do with military ships” given an agreed code in place for navies, he said.
“But you may have incidents arising from fishing, you may have incidents arising from white ships,” Ng said. “Whatever color ships they are, they can precipitate incidents.”
Singapore is not a claimant in the South China Sea, and Ng said China is “not a threat to us.”
Still, it has called for a reduction in tensions and for the ASEAN to take a more united approach to resolving the disputes.
The South China Sea has become a flashpoint for the broader tussle between China and the US for influence in the western Pacific as Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) seeks to build his country into a regional power.
“We are interested in the South China Sea because it is a major shipping route, and a lot of economies depend on it,” Ng said. “We think that uncertainty may lead to incidents.”
China’s assertions cross over those of nations including Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia, and it has reclaimed thousands of acres in the waters in recent years, adding airstrips and jets.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, Netherlands, in July ruled in favor of a Philippine challenge to China’s territorial claims, but that has not deterred China from continuing to beef up its presence in the waters.
Ministers in Hawaii talked about how to prevent an escalation in tensions and how to keep communications open, Ng said.
“We talked about forums at which we can bring up disputes,” he said.
Still, recent meetings of ASEAN foreign ministers or leaders have failed to take a tough stance on the disputes.
ASEAN statements have not mentioned China by name, while expressing concern about developments in the South China Sea.
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