Lee: US won't risk China relations over sea row

Posted at 04/03/14 1:38 PM

MANILA -- As the Philippines looks to a multilateral approach, specifically with the United States and the International Tribunal on the Law on the Sea, in resolving the disputes over the South China Sea, Singapore's Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew believes the US will not risk its relations with China over the Philippines' claims to certain islands in the disputed seas.

Lee, who is credited for Singapore's rise after its expulsion from the Federation of Malaysia, said as much in an article in the April 14 issue of Forbes magazine now available online.

Titled "China Unfettered: Redefining The Rules Of The Seas," Lee said, "It is naive to believe that a strong China will accept the conventional definition of what parts of the sea around it are under its jurisdiction. This should come as no surprise, but it has been uncomfortable for some of China's neighbors and other stakeholders, including the U.S."

China, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam are engaged in long-standing territorial disputes in the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea).

Lee, however, wondered if a negotiated agreement can be reached.

"Can this be done through a juridical platform, such as the International Court of Justice (ICJ)? Keep in mind that major powers, including China and the U.S., don't generally submit to the jurisdiction of the ICJ or other such forums," he said.

"A resurgent China isn't going to allow its sea boundaries to once again be decided by external parties. Therefore, I don't believe the Chinese will submit their claims, which are based primarily on China's historical presence in these waters, to be decided by rules that were defined at a time when China was weak. And China has judged that the U.S. won't risk its present good relations with China over a dispute between the Philippines and China.

"China sees the South China Sea as one of its key interests. A rising China is asserting its position by claiming historical rights to these waters. And the disputes, which arise from claims based on different principles, are unlikely to be resolved. One-third of the world's trade passes through the South China Sea, a vital sea line of communications. Many other countries also have important interests there. These include the freedom of navigation and overflight, as well as the peaceful management of disputes. Quite apart from preventing mishaps and incidents, a framework to manage the different interests should be established," Lee added.

He further noted that "China's reliance on historical claims necessitates considering what its fleets did in the past, way before Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas and Vasco da Gama arrived in India."


Malacanang, for its part, said it does not see this as a wavering of support on the part of Singapore.

Communications Secretary Sonny Coloma pointed out that Lee referred to freedom of navigation and overflight.

Coloma said these are the essential elements of the Philippines' stand.

"[The position] we have taken, which was affirmed during the ASEAN-Japan summit last December 2013 by all ASEAN member countries that, in 2012, [we] also agreed to finally start fleshing out a Code of Conduct (framework) to guide all countries staking claims in the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea). I could sense that, throughout the article, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew was writing in a highly nuanced manner, as befits his stature as a statesman.

"While it may be true that China's claim predates all others, it is equally true that China is a signatory to the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea that effectively established an acceptable framework for defining national territories in our day and age," he added.

Singapore's President Tony Tan Keng Yam is now in Manila on a 4-day state visit.