Adhere to law in sea dispute: PM Lee

SETTLING the South China Sea disputes on the basis of might is not a sustainable solution and the best route is for all to adhere to international law, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said last night, hinting that the issue risked souring the broader relationship between China and Asean states.

"In the long run, a stable regional order cannot be maintained by superior force, but also requires consent and legitimacy in the international community, together with the balance of power," he said, urging China to conclude a Code of Conduct with Asean "as soon as possible".

Mr Lee was delivering the keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). This year's summit brings together defence chiefs from 26 nations against a backdrop of rising tensions over the South China Sea.

While China agreed to a general declaration on the conduct of parties in the South China Sea in 2002, it has been slow to respond to Asean's urging for a legally binding Code of Conduct.

IISS chief executive and director-general John Chipman noted the defining characteristic of the region had become strategic unease.

The US, represented here by Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, has voiced its determination to ensure freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea.

Mr Lee said every state whose trade passes through the South China Sea, or whose ships and aircraft use it, has an interest in ensuring freedom of navigation and over- flight. That includes Singapore, for whom the South China Sea is a "vital lifeline".

In his 45-minute speech, Mr Lee said all of Asia wanted positive ties between the US and China, and did not want to take sides.

While it was heartening that both say the Pacific Ocean is "vast enough" for them to participate and compete peacefully, it should not mean that they carve up the Pacific between themselves.

"To divide up the Pacific Ocean between the two, each with its own sphere of influence, would circumscribe options for other countries, increasing the risk of rivalry and conflict between two power blocs," he said.

Others too played a role, he added, saying it was past time for Japan and its neighbours to put World War II behind them properly like the Europeans had, and display statesmanship and largeness of spirit on all sides.

Noting that the Asian strategic balance was shifting, Mr Lee said China's interdependence with the external world had grown. Moves such as the setting up of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) were ways for China to participate constructively in the international order. This is why Singapore gave it early support.

Likewise, the US too is adding substance to its rebalancing towards Asia with major initiatives like the Trans-Pacific Partnership. "Speaking as an Asian country and a participant in both, Singapore hopes that, eventually, China will join the TPP, and the US and Japan will join the AIIB," Mr Lee said.

velloor@sph.com.sg