DEFENSE Secretary Delfin Lorenzana yesterday said the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is not yet ready for a united stand in connection with the territorial dispute in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) or South China Sea due to conflicting interests.
He added that tension in the area will continue to rise as China continues to accuse the United States and other nations of provocation and destabilization in the region.
Virtually addressing virtually the Pilipinas Conference 2020 sponsored by the Stratbase Albert del Rosario Institute, Lorenzana said the 10 member states of ASEAN have contrasting interests. The members of ASEAN are Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Lao, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Four of them – the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam – have claims over the islands, islets and other features in the WPS. The two other claimants are China and Taiwan.
“And where is the ASEAN in this superpower rivalry? Despite its avowed ASEAN centrality, it is anything but. The ASEAN could exert considerable influence on issues and events in the South China Sea if only it could act as one,” said Lorenzana.
“But this is not possible at the moment due to conflicting interests. The 10 ASEAN member-states could not even agree to a common communique during a summit several years ago,” said Lorenzana.,
Complicating the matter, Lorenzana said is the Chinese “preference for bilateral dialogue as against a multi lateral one.”
“The security concern that has occupied the interest and time of the security agencies in the region is the rising tension in the South China Sea between the two superpowers,” said Lorenzana, referring to China and US.
The US has been conducting freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea, angering China, which is asserting nine-dash line claim that has been invalidated by a 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration.
He said a possible confrontation between the US and its allies and China over the South China is the “crux of the security challenge” in the Indo-Pacific region.
“While the US and China continue to assert that their actions are defensive, the danger of miscalculation is ever present like the near collision of two frigates belonging to the US and China two years ago,” said Lorenzana.
He said the recent decision by the Chinese government to arm Chinese Coast Guard vessels tasked to patrol the South China “”has upped the ante even more.”
“And if ever a shooting war happens, Philippines, which is right smack in the middle of the conflict, will be involved whether she likes it or not,” he said.
The Philippines has a standing Mutual Defense Treaty with US but the Duterte administration has forged closer ties with China under its independent foreign policy.
Lorenzana said China “bristles” at the participation of countries in the US-led patrols in the South China Sea. These countries are supporting the PCA ruling favorable to the Philippines.