ASEAN experts, officials say dialogue should prevail in resolving South China Sea disputes

Experts from ASEAN countries believe that the South China Sea issue should be resolved by the regional countries themselves, without the involvement of external forces.

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An aerial drone photo taken on May 21, 2024 shows China Coast Guard (CCG) vessel Huayang (R) conducting a drill with another CCG vessel in the South China Sea. (Xinhua/Pu Xiaoxu)

Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim has called for diplomatic engagement to resolve the South China Sea disputes, stressing that interference from external parties will only make things worse. Anwar’s statement represents the common aspiration of most of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries to maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea and the region, according to analysts.

However, for its own interests, the United States is stirring up conflicts and divisions in the region, while the Philippines, supported by the United States, provokes disturbances in the South China Sea.


Malaysia has been “rather successful” in dealing with the South China Sea issue diplomatically, “because we are deemed and seemed to be really neutral in the engagement,” Anwar said on Thursday at the 37th Asia-Pacific Roundtable held in Kuala Lumpur.

He reiterated that the issue must be resolved among ASEAN member countries and China, without the interference of external parties. “There should not be involvement with other parties because it will be deemed to be more complex and will complicate the matter,” he said.

Analysts believe Asia’s prosperity has largely benefited from long-term peace and stability in the region, and ASEAN countries are unwilling to see turmoil in the South China Sea.

“My main message over the past few years has been consistent, and this year will be no different — we must avoid a physical conflict in Asia. Because we can all agree, that neither Asia nor the world can withstand a third geopolitical shock,” said Ng Eng Hen, defense minister of Singapore, at the 2024 Shangri-La Dialogue.

Prabowo Subianto, president-elect of Indonesia and current minister of defense, said at the dialogue that real security comes through very good relations between close neighbors. “This is part of our Asian culture. We must be close, friendly with our immediate neighbors,” the president-elect said.

Vietnam is willing to work with China to implement the high-level consensus between the two countries, properly manage differences, actively promote maritime cooperation and consultation on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, and safeguard peace and stability in the South China Sea, said Vietnamese Foreign Minister Bui Thanh Son during a visit to China in April.

The generally friendly and increasingly close relations between China and ASEAN and between China and individual ASEAN member states must not be clouded by the South China Sea issue, said Kin Phea, director general of the International Relations Institute of Cambodia, a think tank under the Royal Academy of Cambodia.


The United States is trying to encircle China by strengthening relationships with regional allies, said Koh King Kee, president of the Center for New Inclusive Asia, a non-governmental Malaysian think tank.

Clear about the intentions and consequences of the U.S. actions and unwilling to be pawns of the United States, most ASEAN member countries remain vigilant against the U.S. efforts to draw them into a coalition to contain China and have clearly refused to take sides.

Kao Kim Hourn, secretary-general of ASEAN, said that Southeast Asia will never take sides in the competition between the United States and China. Singaporean Prime Minister Lawrence Wong also said on many occasions that Singapore would not pick a side between China and the United States; instead, foreign policy should focus on Singapore’s interests.

“Why must I be tied to one interest? I don’t buy into this strong prejudice against China, this China-phobia,” said Anwar in an interview in February with the Financial Times in Penang, his birthplace in northern Malaysia.

Experts from ASEAN countries have also criticized the Philippines’ provocations in the South China Sea.

The military operations conducted by the Philippines, the United States, and their allies have compromised security in the ASEAN territory, intensifying regional strains, said Muhammad Syaroni Rofii, a lecturer from the School of Strategic and Global Studies at the University of Indonesia.

The confrontational approach taken by the Philippines aligns very well with the U.S. strategy to contain China, said Koh, adding that U.S. military activities in the South China Sea undermine regional peace and stability and pose a serious threat to the security of regional countries.

“It (the Philippines) thinks that by completely siding with one side, it would have an ally, when in fact it is inevitably becoming a pawn to be used. It is also an approach that goes against the general ASEAN diplomatic strategy,” Goh Choon Kang, a former member of Singapore’s parliament, wrote in an opinion piece.


Experts from ASEAN countries believe that the South China Sea issue should be resolved by the regional countries themselves, without the involvement of external forces.

“The Philippines has engaged with external countries like the United States and Japan regarding the South China Sea. They don’t prefer any peaceful solution or play any constructive role. They try to make the problem even bigger, even worse. The United States and its allies try to stop China from rising and try to contain China and encircle China,” said Kin Phea.

“It is essential for members of ASEAN, which may have varying attitudes, to collectively prioritize regional stability. The issue can be solved peacefully and be managed through non-military means as long as all parties concerned remain engaged in serious dialogues and consultations,” he said.

“I don’t agree with the current administration’s approach to the South China Sea,” said Anna Malindog-Uy, vice president of the Manila-based think tank Asian Century Philippines Strategic Studies Institute.

“You really have to use diplomacy,” she said. “Diplomacy would mean negotiation, communication, and continuous communication, continuous negotiation.”

Xinhua News Agency

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