A senior Chinese official has expressed shock at the comments of two senior Singaporean diplomats in Jakarta on Monday that China was splitting Asean in reaching a consensus with three Asean states on the South China Sea.
Vice-Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said yesterday that China's intentions have been misunderstood and that his country was waiting for a clarification from Singapore regarding the comments.
The Singapore diplomats made the remarks at a conference in Jakarta after Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi last Saturday announced a four-point consensus with Brunei, Laos and Cambodia on the South China Sea, including that territorial disputes in the sea were "not an issue between China and Asean as a whole".
Former Asean secretary-general and Singapore's Ambassador-at- Large Ong Keng Yong criticised the move as tantamount to China "meddling" in Asean's internal affairs.
Mr Bilahari Kausikan, policy adviser to Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the consensus can be seen as a means to divide Asean ahead of an international ruling on a petition against China's claims in the South China Sea brought by the Philippines.
The latest development comes amid growing tensions in the region. Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have overlapping territorial claims in the vital waterway. China claims nearly all of the resource-rich sea.
Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of a meeting between China and Asean senior diplomats at the Fullerton Hotel, Mr Liu said each Asean state has its own sovereign rights and China will "never want to split up" the regional grouping.
"China has always supported the development of Asean and recognised that Asean's growth is also important to East Asia," said Mr Liu.
He said the misconceptions of Mr Ong and Mr Kausikan "are not beneficial to the Sino-Asean relationship and cooperation". Defending the consensus, Mr Liu said it reflected the principles of the 2002 Declaration of Conduct (DOC), a pact signed by China and Asean members stating that all parties should refrain from activities that would complicate or escalate disputes.
The senior officials are meeting in Singapore to discuss how to implement DOC guidelines and track the progress of consultations for a binding Code of Conduct. Singapore is coordinating Asean-China ties and a dialogue this year, which also marks the 25th anniversary of the Asean-China Dialogue Partnership.
During the two-day closed-door meeting, which ends today, officials are also discussing how to improve Asean-China cooperation.
Mr Liu said the talks have so far been "good". "We want to establish peace and stability of the region as well as freedom of navigation... and hope that Asean will be united and can partner China to promote dialogue," he added.