BEIJING - Asean must continue to speak out and play a role in helping to peacefully resolve the territorial spats in the South China Sea, Singapore's Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam has pointed out, even if the grouping as a whole cannot intervene directly in the disputes between four member states and China.
"If Asean keeps quiet and loses credibility, it would not be in China's interest," Mr Shanmugam noted in remarks to The Straits Times following a visit to Beijing last week. "It is in China's interest to have a strong and vibrant Asean, united and neutral."
China is locked in a series of long-running territorial disputes with Taiwan and four Asean countries - Vietnam, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia - in the resource-rich South China Sea.
Tension over the issue has ratcheted up in recent months after Manila took Beijing to international court in March over the latter's claims, and after anti-China rioting broke out in Vietnam following the deployment of a Chinese oil rig last month in waters disputed by both countries.
China agreed last year to talks on a "code of conduct" - a set of rules to avoid conflict in the disputed waters - though it continues to insist that the disputes are best resolved bilaterally with other claimant states without the involvement of what Beijing considers "third parties".
Mr Shanmugam made clear that "Asean as a whole does not and cannot intervene" in the overlapping territorial claims.
But as the region's oldest multilateral grouping, Asean has a role in encouraging peaceful behaviour among the claimant states while they work towards resolving their claims.
"It is in our vital interest that there is no serious physical clash, no rise in tension, and that disputes are sorted out among the claimant states in a peaceful way in accordance with international law, including UNCLOS," noted Mr Shanmugam.
He was referring to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, an international agreement which defines the rights and responsibilities of nations in their use of the world's oceans.
China last week issued a detailed position paper on its territorial spat with Vietnam in the South China Sea, which was sent to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon and circulated to UN members.
Mr Shanmugam pointed out that the Chinese statement "shows that China accepts international law, including UNCLOS".
He noted that China could not afford to be seen giving up on its territorial claims. But at the same time, Beijing's claims must conform to international law.
Mr Shanmugam added: "When we speak to Chinese leaders, we are also frank and fair. We say: you have to accept that public opinion in many countries is being influenced against China.
"It is not good for China because when public opinion in some of these countries hardens, it is very difficult to change. In order for China to have a positive international image, its actions in the seas or on land must be seen in accordance with the rules.
"If so, it will be difficult to fault China."