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South China Sea Row to Top Agenda of Asean Defence Ministers’ Meeting Amid China-Philippines Clashes

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Rising tensions from territorial rows in the South China Sea will come into sharp focus when Asean defence chiefs meet this week in Jakarta, but analysts are not expecting the talks to ease the situation on the ground any time soon.

On Wednesday, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will hold the Asean Defense Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM). On Thursday, they will hold the ADMM-Plus session, which will also include eight of the bloc’s dialogue partners, including China, Japan, India and the United States. US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin is expected to attend.
The countries are expected to discuss challenges facing the region, including skirmishes between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea, which have become increasingly frequent in recent months.

Manila has accused Beijing of making aggressive efforts to assert its claim to almost the entire South China Sea, while China has claimed that the Philippines has trespassed on Chinese waters.

On Friday, a Chinese coast guard ship blasted a water cannon towards a Philippine motorboat that was delivering food and other supplies to Filipino forces on a marooned, rusting warship that serves as the country’s fragile territorial outpost at the Second Thomas Shoal.

Dozens of Chinese coastguard vessels and accompanying ships also chased and encircled Philippine vessels in the latest confrontation, as a US Navy surveillance plane flew in circles, kept close watch.
Late last month, Beijing claimed that a Philippine military ship had “illegally entered” the waters near Scarborough Shoal.
Earlier in October, the two countries’ ships were involved in collisions close to Second Thomas Shoal, which lies within Manila’s exclusive economic zone.

Dedi Dinarto, an associate at strategic advisory firm Global Counsel’s Singapore office, said the ADMM is expected to focus on defence cooperation, including discussions on how to strengthen defence capacity building through training and education.

“The spotlight is likely to shift towards maritime security, marking a departure from the previous focus on Covid-19 recovery, as pledged in November last year,” Dinarto said, noting that an emphasis would be placed on maintaining maritime stability.

“Ideally, this incident should serve as a foundation for developing precautionary measures to prevent such collisions from turning into direct conflicts.”

The meeting with Asean’s external dialogue partners should ideally be used as a medium to convey the bloc’s commitment to promoting peace and security, Dinarto added, particularly in terms of urging China and the US to refrain from “actions that trigger instability”.
There has been some question about who China would send to the ADMM-Plus session, given the recent dismissal of former defence minister Li Shangfu. But, considering the importance of the meeting for communication and dialogue with key partners in Southeast Asia, Dinarto said it is unlikely that China will skip it.

He suggested that China might instead send Liu Zhenli, a military general who many have speculated would be the next defence minister, to the meeting.

“If China chooses not to send a representative to the upcoming retreat, this may be interpreted by its Southeast Asian partners as a lack of seriousness on China’s part in maintaining peace and stability in the region, especially with the expected presence of US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin.”

Given the ongoing tensions, Abdul Rahman Yaacob, a research fellow with the Australia-based Lowy Institute’s Southeast Asia programme, said it was important for the meeting to demonstrate Asean unity on the situation in the disputed waterways.

However, given Asean members’ widely differing positions on the issue, Rahman said he does not expect the meeting to “explicitly criticise China’s actions against the Philippines in the South China Sea, even if this is what the Filipinos could be hoping for”.

“At a minimum, I hope that any statement to be issued after the meeting will express Asean’s concerns about the situation in the South China Sea without blaming any party,” he said, adding that the meeting was expected to urge all parties to exercise restraint.

“Maritime stability and security are crucial for many Asean members”, Rahman said, noting that this “must be articulated clearly to the international community”.
The participation of Austin in the ADMM-Plus meeting reaffirms US commitment in the Indo-Pacific region, Rahman said, quelling concerns among some Southeast Asian officials that the conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East might distract the US from the region and “provide China the opportunity to step up its assertiveness in the South China Sea”.

John Bradford, executive director at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies, said the sidelines discussions and turnovers of leadership in the working groups might create opportunities for “incremental progress” on issues of defence cooperation such as disaster response and military medicine.

The ADMM coincides with the joint military exercises between China and the militaries of Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.
The latest “Aman Youyi 2023” drills, which will focus on anti-terrorism exercises, will be held in Zhanjiang, a port city in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong. They will begin this week and go until late November, according to China’s Ministry of National Defence.

The Philippines took part as an observer in past drills but will not be doing so this time.

Manila is looking outside Asean for military and diplomatic support in its maritime disputes with China, Rahman noted.
“[The Philippines] is working on joint patrols with Australia, and the Japanese are working to provide patrol vessels and radar systems to the Filipinos,” he added, referring to the latest assistance from Tokyo to Manila after Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s meeting in the Philippines with President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr earlier this month.

During the ADMM-Plus meeting, South Korea’s recently appointed vice-defence minister, Kim Seon-ho, is expected to request support from participants in managing the security situation on the Korean Peninsula, most notably the threats posed by North Korea’s advancing nuclear weapons and missile programs.

Source: SCMP

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