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Asian Nations Feel Pressure to Take Sides in South China Sea Dispute


Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe meet before the start of their meeting in Singapore on the sidelines of the Shangri-La dialogue, May 31, 2019.
Asian Nations Feel Pressure to Take Sides in South China Sea Dispute
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Some Asian nations are facing growing pressure to support either China or the United States in disputes over the South China Sea.

The South China Sea issue was discussed during a yearly security conference last weekend in Singapore. The meeting, called the Shangri-la Dialogue, was attended by more than 600 defense officials from 40 countries.

Among the attendees were Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe and U.S. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan.

Speaking to the gathering, Wei called for “mutual cooperation” among nations with competing claims to the South China Sea. He urged nations not to “underestimate the wisdom and ability of regional countries to properly handle differences and maintain peace.”

China claims most of the South China Sea, an important waterway through which trillions of dollars in trade passes each year. The area contains rich fishing waters and is believed to hold oil and natural gas. The Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia all claim ownership to parts of the sea.

Several other claimants have criticized China for using undersea landforms in the South China Sea to build artificial islands. China has placed military structures and equipment on some of the islands.

Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivers a keynote address at the IISS Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore, May 31, 2019.
Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivers a keynote address at the IISS Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore, May 31, 2019.

In his comments to the meeting, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned of the danger of smaller countries being “forced” to take sides with larger ones. He said any talks or agreements should aim to “help bring countries together, rather than split them apart.”

Jay Batoncbacal is a professor of international relations at the University of the Philippines. He told VOA he agrees that some smaller nations are already feeling pressure to side with either China or the United States. He said that pressure could increase if disputes between South China Sea claimants “continue to escalate.”

The United States makes no claim to the 3.5 million-square-kilometer South China Sea. But U.S. officials have said they want to keep the waterway open internationally. The U.S. has passed naval ships through the sea 11 times since 2017 and flown B-52 bombers over the waterway in efforts to check China.

Security experts say nations choosing to side with the U.S. risk possible economic punishment by China. But if countries choose to back China, the U.S. might cut off military cooperation.

Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Wei Fenghe salutes attendees ahead of the fourth plenary session of the 18th International Institute for Strategic Studies Shangri-la Dialogue, an annual defense and security forum in Asia, in Singapore, June 2, 2019.
Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Wei Fenghe salutes attendees ahead of the fourth plenary session of the 18th International Institute for Strategic Studies Shangri-la Dialogue, an annual defense and security forum in Asia, in Singapore, June 2, 2019.

Huang Chung-ting is a Chinese political and military expert at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research in Taiwan. He noted that last year, China’s defense minister issued a statement saying Chinese officials “want to repair relations” with its neighbors. “He (Wei Fenghe) hoped there wouldn’t be too many issues of excessive conflict,” Huang said.

In his comments to the meeting, U.S. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said the U.S. is continually strengthening its “alliances and partnerships” in the area. This cooperation has led to joint naval exercises with several other nations.

“No other nation can match the United States’ ability to work across distance, cultures, languages, and time,” Shanahan said. “And we are increasing the rate at which we do this,” he added.

I’m Bryan Lynn.

Ralph Jennings reported this story for VOA News. Bryan Lynn adapted it for Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.

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Words in This Story

mutual adj. When two or more people have the same opinion about each other

artificial adj. not natural, but made by people

escalate v. to rise or increase quickly

excessiveadj. more than is necessary or wanted

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