Ng Eng Hen
Singapore’s Minister for Defence Ng Eng Hen Image Credit: Supplied

Following years of spite and suspicion China and the Asean countries completed their weeklong first landmark maritime field training exercises late in October.

In the backdrop of uneasy relations between China and some Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) members — due to the sovereignty claims over the South China Sea — these exercises are of considerable significance. They demonstrate China’s keenness to boost ties with Asean on security issues. Chinese officials claimed that the exercises were not a one-off engagement but an “ongoing platform to build understanding between Asean and China.”

More importantly, Singapore’s Minister for Defence Ng Eng Hen said Asean and China should carry out more and bigger exercises in the future to build mutual confidence. In a rare show of public understanding, the minister also advised China to engage more with the regional countries to assure them of the peaceful nature of China’s rise. Singapore — the Asean chair for the year, is often accused of pro-West leanings.

The idea of holding these maritime exercises is not new. However, the fact that they were held in 2018 is a testimony to the broader changes taking place in China’s relations with Asean. Analysts believe that this indicates success of China’s strategy of incrementally gaining traction within Asean. Engagements like these build a relationship of trust between the two sides, they said.

The South China Sea — where potentially one of the most dangerous confrontations is brewing between China and the US — is believed to be rich in undersea oil and gas reserves.

Nearly 10 per cent of the world’s fish live in the South China Sea. More than 100,000 merchant vessels traverse the area annually carrying over $5 trillion (Dh18.3 trillion) worth of merchandise or one-third of global maritime trade.

No wonder the sea is subject to competing claims among China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. The US, even though it is not a regional state wants to ensure that it alone should have the military capability to enforce its writ in case of conflict in the region.

The stakes could not be higher. The world’s two largest economies, the US and China — with the former being militarily the strongest — are trying to compete for predominance over the most populous region on the globe. The US may still be the strongest militarily, but China has started to demonstrate growing military muscle.

Earlier in May, after over two decades of laborious talks, China and Asean agreed on the framework for a South China Sea Code of Conduct. Though not designed as a dispute resolution mechanism the code, once agreed, will manage disputes pending their resolution. Though major obstacles still remain over the finalisation of the accord, merely by agreeing on a single negotiating text China becomes a serious interlocutor for the regional states and undercuts American involvement in the region.

As China reinforces its connections with the region the extra-regional states led by the US are actively trying to undercut Beijing’s growing influence.

The pursuit of Quad, comprising the US, Japan, Australia and India and the US symbolically renaming its Asia-Pacific command as the Indo-Pacific Command are steps to meet the challenge that China poses to US hegemonism in its front yard. In this evolving strategic alignment Asean faces the challenge of maintaining its centrality in securing its maritime space as China now positions itself as the guarantor of regional and maritime security.

The US faces a dilemma. With China establishing a friendlier relationship with the regional states there may be no agitated claimants left on whose behalf the US claims to be intervening to maintain freedom of navigation in the China Sea.

For now, both China and the US seem to have tacitly agreed not to disturb the state of uneasy peace in the South China Sea.

Sajjad Ashraf was an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore 2009 — 2017. He was a member of Pakistan Foreign Service from 1973 to 2008 and served as Pakistan’s consul-general to Dubai during the mid-1990s.