Defense Secretary Delfin N. Lorenzana has underscored the need to keep the South China Sea open to overflights and international navigation amid confidence-building measures in addressing the region’s contentious territorial issue with the Asean as a single body.
The defense secretary made the remarks at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue held over the weekend in Singapore, which was attended by the world’s top defense and military officials.
“What we should all agree on, however, is that freedom of navigation and overflight in global sea lines of communications is indispensable to regional peace and security. In our view, no single power should exercise unilateral control over vital arteries of global trade, such as the South China Sea. We need to collectively protect our global commons,” he said.
In the South China Sea, countries, including the United States and its European and Southeast Asian allies, have been up against China’s continued effort to choke the vital sea lane, which was characterized by its building of man-made islands and turning them into military fortresses.
Lorenzana said that while the South China Sea must be opened to international passage, the region must also hammer out confidence-building measures, including joint cooperation and dialogue in addressing the territorial issue, not individually, but as an Asean bloc.
“Fortunately, we are not short of good precedence and best practices in our region. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, for instance, provides a fruitful and encouraging example of conflict-avoidance and peaceful dispute-settlement,” he said.
“Our approach has been uniquely Asean-centered: manage and resolve the disputes through peaceful dialogue, diplomatic negotiations, and fidelity to international law and regional norms and principles,” he added, citing the cases of the Sabah dispute between Malaysia and the Philippines, the Ligitan and Sipadan dispute between Malaysia and Indonesia, and even the border dispute between Cambodia and Thailand over the areas surrounding the Preah Vihear Temple.
Lorenzana said these disputes have been resolved through cooperative means and not through conflict.
“Think of the Malaysia–Thailand Joint Development Area in the Gulf of Thailand, which has allowed both nations to peacefully manage their overlapping maritime claims, or the multilateral Malacca Straits Sea Patrol [MSSP]. Or the Philippines and Indonesian consensus to settle their maritime border disputes in the overlapping EEZ [exclusive economic zone] of the Mindanao and Celebes Seas,” he said.
Lorenzana even considered the idea of a joint exploration among the contending states in resolving the South China Sea problem.
“In more concrete terms, we should consider joint exploration activities, as well as environmental protection regimes, which ensure the equitable, just and lawful exploration, usage, sharing of hydrocarbon reserves, and preservation and protection of marine resources,” he said.
Image credits: AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta