A senior U.S. official on Thursday called for the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations to stand up against China’s attempt to destabilize the security in the region.
David Stilwell, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific, offered praise for Vietnam while responding to a question at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Kuala Lumpur.
“This is your turf, your place, Vietnam is doing a good job of pushing back,” Stilwell told attendees after discussing U.S. policy in the region. “I would think that ASEAN centrality would join with Vietnam to resist action destabilizing and affecting security.”
China claims almost all of the South China Sea, through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes annually. Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and the Philippines – all ASEAN members – have their own overlapping claims to portions of the disputed waters. Taiwan is also a claimant.
China has built seven man-made islands and equipped them with military runways, missile defense systems and outposts. Its ships patrol the sea.
Earlier this month, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad noted that tensions between China and the United States had put his country in a bind because of its economic ties to both nations.
Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah also told parliament on Oct.17 that Malaysia needs to beef up its naval assets amid the escalating South China Sea tension.
“We can make maps, we can demand certain territory, but to answer the question, we need to enhance our assets to allow us to protect our coasts, especially in facing the super powers in the South China Sea,” Saifuddin said, referring to China and the United States.
He said Malaysia’s position on the South China Sea is clear and consistent.
“To ensure regional peace and stability, Malaysia is committed to ensure everyone respects international law, resolves any dispute and avoids the use of force or threats of violence,” Saifuddin said.
Stilwell downplayed concerns over U.S. involvement in the region.
“What we are doing doesn’t just benefit us, but benefit everybody and it ensures there will be no conflict in the region. Why? Because the trades that flow through here benefit the U.S. and benefits everyone else,” he said.
In prepared remarks before the question-and-answer session, Stilwell spelled out the U.S. position on the South China Sea.
“[T]he rights of all nations must be respected, regardless of size, power, or military capabilities,” he said, as he urged claimant nations to respect international law and freedom of navigation. “They are critical to American and Malaysian security and prosperity.”
Stilwell was in Malaysia before attending the ASEAN Summit in Bangkok running Saturday through Monday. President Donald Trump will not attend but is sending U.S. National Security Adviser Robert C. O’Brien and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.
Reacting to Stilwell’s statements, geopolitical strategist Mohamad Mizan Mohammad Aslam said China’s expanding economic capability forced the United States to react.
“The U.S. had seen this as an alarming situation,” he told BenarNews. “[O]nce China had a gigantic economy capability, the U.S. started to worry more.”
China, he said, looks at the South China Sea as part of its greater territory.
“China doesn’t need recognition or written document on ownership of the South China Sea like Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau, but shows it through robust action,” he said. “It seems that China wanted to revive the greater Chinese empire, which once ruled over this eastern region, including the Southeast Asian countries.”
Mohamad Mizan said Southeast Asian nations must take the opportunity to rally with Washington to show Beijing its efforts to expand in the region will not be tolerated.
Aminah Farid in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.