MANILA: Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Monday (Nov 13) that ASEAN member states have agreed to officially start negotiations with China on a code of conduct that will govern how South China Sea disputes are handled.
Speaking at the 20th ASEAN-China summit, Mr Lee welcomed the positive developments, but cautioned that the current progress on the matter cannot be taken for granted. Singapore is the coordinator of ASEAN-China relations.
The agreement to start negotiations come after ASEAN's foreign ministers and China adopted a framework of the code of conduct in August, something which Mr Lee described as an important milestone.
The code of conduct, expected to establish legally binding rules and guidelines on avoiding conflicts, is meant to reduce the risk of armed confrontations in the disputed waters.
China lays claim to almost all of the South China Sea. The other claimants are the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan.
“It is important that we cooperate to maintain peace, stability, freedom of navigation in and over-flight above the South China Sea, in accordance with international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea," Mr Lee said.
He also said he trusts that that the two sides will continue this positive momentum and work towards a "substantive and effective", and an early conclusion of the code of conduct.
“By managing the South China Sea issue well, we can keep ASEAN-China relations on the current positive trajectory,” Mr Lee added.
It is in their collective interest to avoid miscalculations that could lead to escalation of tensions, Mr Lee said, reiterating ASEAN's commitment to implement a declaration governing conduct in the South China Sea in its entirety.
The declaration, among other requirements, commits ASEAN states and China to explore or undertake cooperative activities, pending a comprehensive and durable settlement of the disputes.
One such cooperative activity is a declaration on marine environmental protection which ASEAN and China will adopt on Monday.
ECONOMIC TIES FLOURISHED SINCE ESTABLISHMENT OF ASEAN-CHINA DIALOGUE RELATIONS
China remained ASEAN’s largest trading partner in 2016, and as ASEAN’s fourth largest external source of foreign direct investment, Mr Lee noted.
With the successful upgrading of the ASEAN-China Free Trade Area in 2015 and the resulting benefits to businesses and people from both sides, Mr Lee focused on the next step - implementing a protocol to upgrade the FTA.
“We should also intensify negotiations to achieve a modern, comprehensive, high-quality and mutually-beneficial Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement,” he added.
RCEP is an FTA under negotiation among the 10 ASEAN countries and partners which the organisation has existing agreements with. These countries are China, South Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and India.
Strengthening economic links will contribute towards ASEAN’s and China’s joint target of US$1 trillion (S$1.36 trillion) in trade and US$150 billion (S$204 billion) in investment by 2020, he added.
Mr Lee said that he was pleased to note that ASEAN-China relations have been “strong, stable and mutually-beneficial”.
“Over the years, our relationship has grown rapidly to become one of ASEAN’s most substantive dialogue partnerships,” Mr Lee said.
Speaking briefly at the summit, Chinese premier Li Keqiang avoided the South China Sea issue, but said that of all relationships China has, the one with ASEAN is the “most dynamic”.
BOOST FOR TOURISM, CONNECTIVITY BETWEEN ASEAN AND CHINA
After already exceeding a target for tourism between ASEAN and China that was set for 2020, the two parties will issue a joint statement on tourism cooperation on Monday, which Mr Lee said “reflects our strong interest for further collaboration”.
At the ASEAN-China summit in September last year, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang suggested the target of 30 million two-way tourist arrivals by 2020. But China and the regional group have exceeded this target in less than a year. In 2016, 19.8 million Chinese tourists visited Southeast Asian countries while 10.3 million people from Southeast Asian visited China.
There is still “tremendous potential” for these figures to grow, Mr Lee said, especially with the designation of 2017 as ASEAN-China Year of Tourism Cooperation.
On the connectivity front, the ASEAN-China joint statement on infrastructure connectivity cooperation which will be issued on Monday is a "positive step" towards efforts to explore synergies between ASEAN’s connectivity efforts and China’s Belt and Road initiative, Mr Lee added.
China’s massive and ambitious plans include a port in Pakistan, bridges in Bangladesh and railways to Russia.
To enhance regional connectivity, ASEAN and China should work towards the full liberalisation of the ASEAN-China Air Transport Agreement, Mr Lee said. The agreement concluded in 2010 is meant to establish a liberalised market access regime for both sides’ airlines. However, China has benefitted more than ASEAN states.
GOOD ASEAN-CHINA RELATIONS IMPORTANT TO REGION’S STABILITY AND DEVELOPMENT
As both sides gear up to commemorate 15 years of the ASEAN-China Strategic Partnership next year, Mr Lee welcomed China’s proposal for leaders to issue the ASEAN-China Strategic Partnership Vision 2030, which will allow them to chart the future direction of the relationship between the two sides.
“ASEAN has a broad cooperation agenda with China. Key to this agenda must be the foundation of solid ASEAN-China relations," Mr Lee said, adding that the two sides "should continue to nurture our mutually beneficial relationship, deepen trust and strengthen ties, both at the government and people-to-people levels".
Mr Lee also said he had a good official visit to China in September where he met with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang and affirmed the importance of maintaining the positive trajectory of ASEAN-China relations, and explored ways to take the relationship forward.
With Singapore’s chairmanship themes of resilience and innovation and the ASEAN-China Year of Innovation next year, there is much ASEAN can learn from China’s progress in digital economy, including in financial technology, e-commerce and Smart Cities, Mr Lee said.
There is also scope for greater cooperation with China on the security front, such as in counter-terrorism, Mr Lee added. As ASEAN-China Country Coordinator and incoming ASEAN Chair, Singapore will continue to play its part to deepen cooperation between both parties, Mr Lee said.
“Singapore will continue to serve as an honest broker and work closely with China and other ASEAN member States to promote greater mutual understanding and cooperation between ASEAN and China,” he said.