South China Sea set to top agenda at Asean defence ministers’ meeting


Beijing’s militarisation of disputed waterway has encouraged greater cooperation among regional players and major powers

Defence ministers from the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) will gather in Singapore for their 12th annual meeting from Thursday to Saturday, along with their counterparts from China, the United States, Australia, India and Japan.

While observers expect the delegates to find some consensus on less contentious issues such as disaster relief, maritime research and anti-terrorism efforts – including a regional counterterrorism intelligence sharing network advocated by Singapore – they do not expect any concrete progress on core territorial disputes.

Japan and Vietnam join hands over disputed South China Sea
The South China Sea is one of the world’s most strategic waterways and home to several overlapping territorial claims, mostly involving China and regional players like Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia, all three of which are members of Asean.

Defence ministers from the Asean and their counterparts from China, the US, Australia, India and Japan will meet in Singapore this week. Photo: AP

Washington’s growing criticism of Beijing’s militarisation of the waterway is also likely to make it the meeting’s hot topic, especially after US vice-president Mike Pence slammed China’s aggressive behaviour following a near collision between a Chinese destroyer and an American warship on September 30.

“We might see the US reiterate its support for the Indo-Pacific, and to again call out China’s behaviour in the South China Sea,” said Aaron Rabena, an associate fellow at the Philippines Council for Foreign Relations. “As Sino-US tensions build up, Asean will face pressure from two sides.”