Competition between the U.S. and China for influence in Asia creates risks for smaller states, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, as Southeast Asian nations could find themselves caught between the world’s two biggest economies.
All Asian countries hope that U.S.-China relations will be positive, and none want to choose a side, Lee said in a speech to defense officials on Friday at the Shangri-La security forum in Singapore, a meeting that will be attended by U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Chinese Admiral Sun Jianguo.
Lee’s speech comes as the U.S. expresses increased concern over China’s reclamation work on reefs in the South China Sea that countries including the Philippines and Vietnam also claim. China this week set out its ambitions for a bigger naval presence far from its coasts, while Carter has asked his military to look at boosting freedom of navigation challenges in the South China Sea.
“Actions provoke reactions,” said Lee. “The U.S. is responding to Chinese activities with increased over-flights and sailings near the disputed territories, to signal that it will not accept unilateral assertions of sovereignty in the South China Sea.” The current dynamic risks “tensions and bad outcomes,” he said.
It’s a “good sign” that China and the U.S. say the Pacific Ocean is big enough to accommodate both, Lee said. But such comments should not be taken to mean the two divide up the region, “each with its own sphere of influence, circumscribing options for other countries, and increasing the risk of rivalry and conflict between two power blocs.”
China claims more than 80 percent of the South China Sea and keeping tensions down in the area is key given about half the world’s merchant ships pass through the waters every year. Japan and China are embroiled in a separate territorial dispute over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.
Carter in a speech in Hawaii en route to Singapore said the U.S. military would go wherever international law permitted, a rebuff to China’s efforts to deter planes and ships from coming near reclaimed reefs.
“There should be no mistake about this: The United States will fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows, as we do all around the world,” said Carter.
It is an “open secret” that the U.S. had reservations about the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and discouraged its friends from participating, Lee said. Some observers in turn believe that the requirements of the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement are being crafted to raise the hurdle for China to join, he said.
Japan, which has not joined the AIIB, said it plans with the Asian Development Bank to boost funding for infrastructure projects in Asia to about $110 billion over the next five years. Most Southeast Asian countries want Japan to play a more active role in the region, but don’t want to get embroiled in rivalry between China and Japan either, Lee said.
Japan needs to acknowledge its past wrongs and the nation’s public opinion should be more forthright in rejecting the “more outrageous” interpretations of history by right-wing academics and politicians, he said. At the same time, Japan’s neighbors need to accept its acknowledgments and not demand it apologize over and over, he said.
“Every Asian country stands to lose if regional security and stability are threatened,” said Lee. The disputes in the South China Sea are “most unlikely to be solved anytime soon,” he said. “But they can and they should be managed and contained.”