SINGAPORE – Weighing in on the Philippine-China row may not be something up for Singapore to do, even in the context of a neighbor assuaging another, during the state visit of Singapore President Tony Tan Keng Yam to the Philippines April 2 to 5, a leading ASEAN diplomat and academic said Tuesday.
Tan is the first head of a neighboring state to visit after the Philippines asked a United Nations arbitral tribunal on Sunday to declare Beijing's claims over most of the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) a violation of international law. But the dispute is not a major concern for now for countries like Singapore, said Rodolfo Severino, a former Philippine foreign affairs undersecretary, ASEAN secretary-general, and now head of the ASEAN Studies Centre at the Singapore-based Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS).
“I am not saying it’s (state visit) not significant... The visit is significant. But it’s not significant for the claim to the South China Sea because it's not in the radar screen of most countries. It’s another territorial dispute,” Severino said.
“It’s not important to others, but to the Philippines, of course it’s important. To China, to certain segments of Chinese decision-making, it’s important. But it’s not important to everybody else,” he added.
Later in the interview, Severino said, “countries act according to their own interests, according to their leaders' own interest.” Looking out for resolution to territorial rows is “long-term thinking,” and may not be immediate concern for many, especially if political survival takes precedence for these leaders, he said.
Even if it's in Singapore's economic interest to look out for regional peace, and even as a member of the ASEAN, Severino said he suspects Singapore decision-makers may not even have read the memorial yet.
“What is this (Philippine case against China) situation all about? Does it threaten peace and security?
It’s not in Singapore's power to prevent or not, or acquiesce in whatever action is taking place,” he said.
Tan is expected to meet with President Benigno S. Aquino III “to discuss matters of mutual concern, including cooperative activities in defense, trade and investment, and the Filipino community in Singapore, among others,” a Malacanang Palace spokesman said ahead of the visit.
Tan is also scheduled to meet with the Philippine-Singapore Business Council, and hand over Singapore peoples’ donations for rehabilitation projects in Haiyan-struck areas.
Philippine Embassy in Singapore First Secretary and Consul Mersole Mellejor, in charge of the political, economic and cultural sections, said Singapore interests in the Philippines may be in the areas of trade, real estate and private company partnerships.
As the Philippines is coming close to a 100-million-people market, this becomes attractive to Singaporean businesses. Close to this, Singapore businesses may be in search of investment opportunities in real estate or even office spaces, Mellejor said.
Singapore was the Philippines’ 4th largest trade partner in 2013, with total trade amounting to US$8.22 billion. It is also the sixth largest source of visitors to the Philippines, with 175,304 tourist arrivals in 2013. Singapore hosts a 180,000-strong Filipino community, most of them workers.