“Respect the rule of law”, said Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in August who told China to keep their hands off the South China Sea after the announcement of the Hague ruling. However, PM Lee Hsien Loong was played out by ASEAN countries as everyone warm up to China at the APEC meeting held in Peru.
Despite having the international court ruled in their favour, ASEAN countries who have claims over the South China Sea did not press ahead with their cases to pressure China. In a high level meeting held individually with the leadership of Vietnam and Philippines, China’s President Xi Jin Ping secured their agreement to settle the maritime issue bilaterally with no external interference from non-claimant countries like United States.
The “divide and conquer” strategy adopted by China proves to be working as the claimant countries agree not to negotiate in a group. The group approach is often criticised by China as an effort by United States to undermine China. Domestically, locals of claimant countries are also uncomfortable that the discussion is led by major US-ally, Singapore, and that their countries may be perceived as subservient to the United States.
Speaking to the media in Peru, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte said that he is willing to “properly address maritime issues with China through dialogue and consultation”.
In response, China President Xi Jin Ping said:
“The two countries should solve disputes through bilateral consultations and dialogues, adhere to a cooperative path of shelving differences and engaging in joint development, and properly address problems in order to maintain regional peace and tranquillity.”
Singapore’s neighbour, Malaysia, have also tacitly dropped the South China Sea case against China by welcoming China’s hefty investments including a S$17.8 billion East Coast railway and a S$14 billion trading port, Melaka Gateway.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong have since been silenced and stopped pushing for China to “respect the rule of law”. However, the Singapore Prime Minister did not attempt any effort to mend ties with China and has instead continued to harp on the Trans-Pacific Pact (TPP), even though newly-elected US President Donald Trump has made it clear that the TPP will be scrapped once he is in office.