By Aaron Recuenco
To avoid future armed conflict, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana stressed that no single military superpower should have unilateral control over the South China Sea.
And since the South China Sea is one of the vital arteries of global trade, freedom of navigation in the area is very important, Lorenzana told delegates of the 18th Asia Security Summit in Singapore over the weekend.
“What we should all agree on, however, is that freedom of navigation and overflight in global sea lines of communications is indispensable to regional peace and security,” the defense chief added.
“In our view, no single power should exercise unilateral control over vital arteries of global trade, such as the South China Sea. We need to collectively protect our global commons,” he noted.
Lorenzana made the remarks in the presence of his counterparts in Southeast Asia and security officials from other countries.
In the same forum Saturday, US Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan denounced China’s efforts to militarize man-made outposts in the South China Sea as a “toolkit of coercion,” saying Beijing’s bad behavior must end.
Shanahan mixed sharp criticism of China and warnings of North Korea’s “extraordinary” threat with vows that the U.S. will remain strongly committed to the Indo-Pacific region and is ready to invest billions of dollars in securing its stability.
While he didn’t specifically name China in early parts of his speech, he made clear who his target was, making pointed references to Beijing’s campaign to put advanced weapons systems on disputed islands in the region.
“If these trends in these behaviors continue, artificial features in the global commons could become tollbooths. Sovereignty could become the purview of the powerful,” Shanahan said.
“China can and should have a cooperative relationship with the rest of the region … But behavior that erodes other nations’ sovereignty and sows distrust of China’s intentions must end,” Shanahan stressed.
In response to Shanahan’s remarks Sunday, China’s defense minister, General Wei Fenghe warned its military will “resolutely take action” to defend Beijing’s claims over self-ruled Taiwan and disputed South China Sea waters.
Wei Fenghe said: “Should anybody risk crossing the bottom line, the PLA will resolutely take action and defeat all enemies.”
He defended China’s right to build “limited defense facilities” in the contested South China Sea, where its sweeping claims are challenged by several smaller neighbors.
This is the first time that China sent a representative to the defense forum since 2011.
Washington has been pushing back against Beijing’s militarization of the South China Sea, where China has built installations to enforce blanket sovereignty, pitting it against partial claims by Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.
Beijing is also regularly angered by US warships transiting through the Taiwan Strait, which it considers part of its territorial waters.
To counter China’s aggressive stance, military superpowers like the United States have sailed their warships and fly military planes in the name of “freedom of navigation.”
All received warnings from the Chinese military.
Lorenzana noted that the situation at the South China Sea is already becoming volatile as other military superpowers has started flexing their muscles against China.
“This is most especially important in potential flashpoints such as the South and East China Seas, where the risk of miscalculation and unwanted conflict is rising on a daily basis, as great powers expand their military footprint and pursue divergent visions,” said Lorenzana in pushing for peaceful conflict resolution.
The emergence of China as a major global player in a fast manner, according to Lorenzana, is transforming the texture and trajectory of geopolitics especially in Asia.
“What we are dealing with is not only a shift in the material balance of forces in our region, but also in our very conception of the emerging regional order – and, respectively, the anchors of peace and prosperity in the 21st century. The consequence of such seismic geopolitical shift is a troubling form of ‘superpower rivalry’, which has now extended, to the anxiety of many in the region, even to the realm of trade, investment and cyberspace,” Lorenzana explained.
“If left unchecked, this new and perilous dynamic could potentially upset ‘globalization’ as we know it. With the untethering of our networks of economic interdependence, comes growing risk of confrontation that could lead to war. Our greatest fear, therefore, is the possibility of sleepwalking into another international conflict,” he warned.
As such, he said Southeast Asian leaders should pursue an approach that focus on peaceful dialogue, diplomatic negotiations and fidelity to international law and regional norms and principles. (With a report from AP)