SINGAPORE - Singapore’s defense minister has said there is a firm basis for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations helping to resolve disputes involving several of its member states and China in the South China Sea, “a critical waterway for international trade.”
“The Chinese would prefer individual nations, claimant states, to settle their claims bilaterally, and they have said openly and in that respect for ASEAN to stay out of it,” Ng Eng Hen told reporters, noting that Beijing has similarly cautioned non-ASEAN countries like the United States not to involve themselves.
“But for ASEAN and other countries, there is no ignoring that fact that the South China Sea is an international waterway,” he said, speaking in a group interview Tuesday on the occasion of Singapore Armed Forces Day.
“And yes, the Chinese has assured the freedom of navigation and freedom of overflight. But no responsible government can approach this on the basis that ‘Let’s hope that nothing happens even though the tensions are up.’ So we do pay attention to it.”
Noting that ASEAN and China in 2002 signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, Ng said that document, which details how to approach problems in the South China Sea, demonstrates that ASEAN is “already involved.”
“The DOC gave very clear directions that claimant states shouldn’t build on disputed areas. Yes, very few claimant states have followed that, but that doesn’t negate the fact that that was the point of agreement.”
China, which claims almost the entire South China Sea, strongly objects to what it perceives as nonclaimants’ interference in the disputes and any attempts at multilateral arbitration.
Only four of the 10 ASEAN member states — the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei — have claims over the Spratly Islands and other land features in the South China Sea that are also claimed by China and Taiwan.
Beijing’s insistence on settling these territorial disputes on a bilateral basis was a major reason behind a meeting of China and ASEAN foreign ministers ending in disarray in June.
In April, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi reached a four-point consensus with Brunei and nonclaimant ASEAN members Cambodia and Laos that the South China Sea disputes are not an China-ASEAN issue and should be resolved bilaterally between claimants. The Chinese move was seen by some observers as aimed at splitting ASEAN.
“All of us note China’s preference to deal with these issues bilaterally. But I think the point is when others see that the tensions in the South China Sea go up, they are up jumping in because the situation is not made better,” Ng said, referring to occasional flare-ups in the hotly contested waters.
“Temperatures have been going up because of the disputes, and both claimant and nonclaimant states have become more assertive in their positions. There is a risk of escalations and unintended incidents,” he said, while urging China to calm tensions by dealing with issues quickly and resolutely.
Ng also commented on the upcoming ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on the dispute in a case brought in January 2013 by the Philippines against China over the latter’s South China Sea claim.
“I expect that the tribunal ruling may escalate actions and reactions, so we should be watchful,” he said.
Ng said the defense community should introduce “practical measures that can de-escalate tensions.” He gave the example of a phone hotline that has already been set up among ASEAN defense ministers that allows the affected parties to contact each other immediately on encounters at sea.
He also called for more joint exercises and other military interactions with China to build confidence and trust and to reduce tensions, saying, “The more we engage with China, the better for all of us.”
Singapore is currently the ASEAN coordinator on the group’s dialogue relations with China.
ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.