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Asia at 'critical point' due to splintering ties: Tommy Koh

Increasing military threat from China is causing countries such as Vietnam and Philippines to draw closer to the US and Japan, increasing the risk of splintering within the region, says Singapore's Ambassador-at-Large.

SINGAPORE: The Asian region is at a "critical point" right now due to rising risk of splintering ties among key players, says Singapore's Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh.

Speaking at a banking conference organised by DBS on Friday (July 4), Professor Koh warns that the growing tensions in the East China and South China Seas over territorial claims have heightened the risk of splintering among nations in the region.

He said: "Because countries in the region like Vietnam and the Philippines feel threatened by China, they are seeking to draw closer to Washington and to Japan. And there's a danger that there'll be a new alignment of forces in the region.

"We don't want that. We don't want the countries in the region to be split into groups which are pro-China, groups which are anti-China."

But it is not in China's interests to provoke a realignment of interests in Asia, he added.

There is nothing objectionable about China modernising its armed forces, given that its interests are now global in nature, but it is important how China treats its smaller regional neighbours as it grows in stature, he said.

Prof Koh said: "So my appeal to China is that when you grow in power, wealth, and influence, you have to exercise your power with restraint.

"You have to reassure your neighbours that you will not intimidate them, coerce them. That when we have differences, we will solve our differences peacefully, through negotiations if possible, and if not possible, through joint-development, and if join-development is not possible, take the dispute to arbitration or adjudication.

"If China could do this, then I would say it is a win-win situation between China and Asia."

A related concern is rising nationalism -- when leaders come under popular pressure to take a tough stand, this could mean that a win-win situation may be hard to achieve for countries involved in the region's territorial disputes.

Similarly, nationalist sentiment has been whipped up ahead of Indonesia's presidential elections next week. And there are concerns that this could translate into more protectionist measures, and hurt Asia's economic prospects.

Jusuf Wanandi, co-chair of the Pacific Economic Cooperation Council, said: "I hope it can be done on the Prabowo side -- that the over-nationalism, ultra-nationalism is going to be subdued. But I'm worried it's not going to happen that way.

"On the other hand, with Jokowi, you have seen under Megawati what nationalism meant. And that is going to be the model for Jokowi to follow. Nationalism means that it's not exclusive, it's not inward-looking, and (we can) still be part of the region as well as the world."

Prof Koh also warns that economic interdependence is not a guarantee of peace. Although economic integration in Asia has quickened -- with more trade agreements and partnerships inked over the years -- he said political tensions and divisiveness have increased.

He added that from the 16th century to date, there has been 15 cases in which an incumbent hegemonic superpower faced a rising power, and in 11 of those 15 instances, it resulted in war.

Prof Koh said: "President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping are aware of the burden of history. They want to avoid a war between China and the United States.

"But the lesson of history, is that we live in a very dangerous moment in history, when an incumbent superpower faces a challenger. And if history is any guide, we cannot preclude the risk of war between China and the United States."

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