Low-key diplomacy the best way to deal with South China Sea disputes

The foreign ministry’s intervention in a dispute between Singapore and a newspaper has complicated a delicate situation

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 October, 2016, 1:10am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 October, 2016, 1:57am

Diplomacy needs a delicate hand, and especially so where the South China Sea is concerned. An escalating row between China and Singapore over the raising of the issue at the recent summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) makes plain the need for care. The foreign ministry’s weighing into a war of words between the Singaporean ambassador to Beijing and the Communist Party’s Global Times newspaper risks harming ties with the Association of Southeast Asian (Asean) nations that had been on the mend after a controversial ruling by a tribunal in The Hague. A prudent response that avoided the public spotlight would have been more appropriate.

The row centres on an attempt by Asean to have a paragraph on the ruling inserted into a summit document. Venezuela, the host nation, rejected the idea and wrangling with individual members ensued; the Venezuelan position eventually stood. A report published last week by the Global Times claimed, quoting an unnamed source, that Singapore initiated the move, an account rejected by the envoy, Stanley Loh. A series of claims and counter-claims have since ensued, and a ministry spokesman joined the dispute on Tuesday, seemingly agreeing with the publication without mentioning the island state by name.

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Asean’s 10 countries are members of NAM, set up in 1961 as a bloc to avoid taking sides in the cold war. China has observer status, but given its economic clout with the developing world, is an influential player. Singapore’s close ties to China and the US require careful diplomatic balancing. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has irritated Beijing of late with remarks in favour of the tribunal’s ruling against China’s South China Sea claims and expressions of hope of continued American engagement in the region. The latest incident has the potential to damage ties.

Singapore is not a claimant in the territorial dispute, but can help with talks between China and Asean members. But Beijing believes discussion should be confined to Asean meetings or through bilateral dialogue and that international forums are inappropriate venues. No matter which nation instituted the move at the NAM summit, Beijing’s ire was inevitable.

The Global Times does not officially represent the government’s opinion. By stepping in, the foreign ministry gives the impression it is siding with the nationalist paper. Ties with Asean members with claims, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam, are improving. If displeasure with any action is voiced, low-profile diplomatic channels are the most appropriate.