Hishammuddin: Asean must find common ground on South China Sea

Asean must work together to resolve overlapping claims among member states before it engages in a broader struggle with China and the US


FOREIGN Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein (picture) has underlined the need for Asean countries to find common ground on the South China Sea issue before confronting superpower nations head-on.

Hishammuddin said Asean must get its house “in order” first and work together to resolve overlapping claims among member states before it engages in a broader struggle with China and the US.

“The first step is to deal with our members in Asean. With regard to the US in the South China Sea, we will have to see what their policy will be under the new administration and what the stand is with the other superpower up north,” he said, after attending a virtual meeting yesterday with Asean foreign ministers as part of the 37th Asean Summit and related meetings.

The South China Sea dispute remains a contentious issue among Asean countries with their respective territorial claims playing out on the back of conflicting interests and rivalries between the US and China.

Democrat Joe Biden’s election win also meant that Asean would need to understand the new US administration as quickly as possible.

“It is important to find areas where we can agree upon and those that we cannot, and they have to know what our position is whether on issues related to industry, economy, security or geopolitical considerations such as in the South China Sea,” he said.

Hishammuddin, who is leading the Malaysian delegation at the summit, said various regional and international issues concerning the South China Sea, Rakhine region, Palestine, non-traditional security threats and the way forward post-pandemic top the agenda at the summit.

On the Covid-19 front, he said Malaysia and Asean would need to think out of the box in dealing with the pandemic by leveraging multilateral and regional relationships within the bloc which includes the establishment of an Asean Regional Centre on Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases.

He said Asean leaders will be witnessing the signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP, at the summit. The RCEP negotiations were first launched at the 21st Asean Summit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in November 2012.

The 16 participating countries are the 10 Asean nations, Australia, China, Japan, Korea, New Zealand and India. India, however, has indicated its unwillingness to join the world’s biggest free trade agreement. Collectively, the Asean Economic Community and RCEP account for a combined output of US$22.4 trillion (RM92.23 trillion) or 30.6% of world output.

Hishammuddin said the inclusion of Colombia, Cuba and South Africa in the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in South-East Asia showed that Asean is still relevant and has gained interests from other countries to engage.

The 37th Asean Summit and related meetings is held virtually until Nov 15, hosted by Vietnam, the Asean chair for 2020.