Middle powers should exert more influence in South China Sea: expert

09/08/2020 11:11 PM
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An aerial view of the Dongsha Islands (CNA file photo)
An aerial view of the Dongsha Islands (CNA file photo)

Taipei, Sept. 8 (CNA) Taiwan and other middle powers should exert more influence in geopolitics by providing more options to weaker countries in the power struggle between the United States and China in the South China Sea, a Filipino maritime expert said Tuesday during a security forum.

This is because the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is "paralyzed" by U.S.-China competition due to the very few options left for them, said Jay Batongbacal, director of the Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law at the University of the Philippines, via video conferencing during a panel discussion titled "South China Sea: Theater of Power Rivalry."

The panel discussion was part of the two-day Ketagalan Forum -- 2020 Asia-Pacific Security Dialogue, which also tackled the issues relating to the security situation across the Taiwan Strait, global public health cooperation and economic security after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Batongbacal named Taiwan, Japan, Australia and India as some of those middle powers that could generate options for Southeast Asian countries to choose from, rather than having to accept positions of either one of the superpowers.

"The split between the two superpowers is beginning to split the region, even though they may not want to, but they are being forced to," Batongbacal said.

He pointed out that the next few months will likely determine the direction and scope of the U.S.-China rivalry as the U.S. presidential election might take some surprising turns, adding that Southeast Asian countries should not allow themselves to be simply "blown by the wind."

"We hope that smaller countries can come together as a viable third force and establish a bigger role in protecting and charting our own region," he said.

For his part, Nguyen Hung Son, vice president of the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, said the majority of the international community, especially in this region, do not want to choose sides and are on the side of the rule of law and transparency.

"And I think in this sense, Taiwan can play a very constructive and crucial role in expressing itself as a player in the South China Sea, in supporting multilateralism and the rule of law," he said, also via video conferencing.

Tension in the South China Sea has been escalating as China and the U.S. vie for regional influence.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Beijing continues to expand its presence in the South China Sea by militarizing artificial islands it has built, establishing administrative divisions, chasing away fishermen from other countries, and holding large-scale military exercises.

The Chinese military fired four medium-range ballistic missiles into the South China Sea on Aug. 26, a move seen by many as sending a message to Washington.

On the U.S. side, it has been conducting freedom of navigation operations, increasing its frequencies of reconnaissance missions and holding joint military exercises with countries such as Japan and Australia in the South China Sea.

Carlyle Thayer, professor emeritus at the Australian Defence Force Academy, warned in the same forum that "more than at any time in the last decade, strategic rivalry between China and the U.S. could lead to armed conflict in the South China Sea."

He said he believes that the tense situation will continue beyond the U.S. presidential election, irrespective of who emerges as the winner.

(By Emerson Lim)

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