Time to speak up about the South China Sea

Author: Lyle J Morris, RAND Corporation

There appears to be a collective aversion among government officials and heads-of-state in Southeast Asia to speak up in public about Chinese transgressions and coercion in the South China Sea. Such reticence is based on misplaced fear of Chinese repercussions and does a disservice to regional interests, undermines deterrence and needlessly concedes leverage in negotiations with China on territorial disputes or a South China Sea Code of Conduct.

Activists display placards as they chant slogans during a rally to protest alleged harassment of Philippine fishermen at the Scarborough Shoal in the disputed South China Sea, Makati, Metro Manila, Philippines, 12 June 2018 (Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro).

This sentiment was on display in a recent interview with Singapore’s Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, who downplayed concerns over Chinese activities in the disputed waters. Ng said calling China a regional hegemon was a matter of ‘opinion’, gave credence to China’s ‘peaceful rise’ narrative and highlighted China’s positive role in economics and trade. All were unprompted comments made in the context of discussing the South China Sea disputes.

Other leaders in Southeast Asia, such as Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, have also made accommodating …continue reading