Collin Koh
Collin Koh

The bloc needs to unambiguously and collectively articulate its concerns on the disputed waterway, whether it names and shames Beijing or otherwise, or it risks sliding into irrelevance.

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Scope of the Asean-US Maritime Exercise next week will be limited, to avoid giving Beijing any wrong idea about Southeast Asian countries joining a US-led China-containment scheme.

Defence chiefs Patrick Shanahan and Wei Fenghe tamped down the rhetoric and used a side meeting to further mutual understanding. But with neither Washington nor Beijing prepared to cede ground on security priorities, their strategic stalemate will continue to shape regional diplomacy.

Talks between Beijing and Asean about agreeing a code of conduct will continue, but while they do it may be well be business as usual for many interested parties.

Li Keqiang may be right to warn that a code of conduct for the sea could take three years: it is effectively an arms control mechanism, though not the classical type and its 11 parties have much to resolve.

A close encounter between a Chinese destroyer and the USS Decatur may have been an attempt by Beijing to keep tensions from crossing into an outright armed confrontation for which neither side is ready.

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