Singapore will be an honest broker in coordinating Asean's relationship with China, and will strive to take the partnership to a higher plane, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.
He noted that relations between Asean and China were broad and deep, with closely intertwined interests in a common neighbourhood.
"We should focus on the positives of this strategic partnership and we should ensure that individual issues and problems do not overshadow our engagement," he said at the Asean-China Summit yesterday.
Both Mr Lee and his Malaysian counterpart Datuk Seri Najib Razak also affirmed the Asean-China relationship as one based on the principles of mutual respect and Asean centrality - the idea that Asean must be in the driver's seat on matters affecting South-east Asia.
Singapore took over the role of coordinating Asean-China dialogue relations from Thailand this year.
We should focus on the positives of this strategic partnership and we should ensure that individual issues and problems do not overshadow our engagement.
PRIME MINISTER LEE HSIEN LOONG, noting that relations between Asean and China were broad and deep, with closely intertwined interests in a common neighbourhood.
Mr Lee also sketched out three areas where ties could be strengthened - in trade, air links and managing disputes in the South China Sea.
He noted that China is the top trading partner for almost every Asean member state, with two-way trade having expanded from US$8 billion to US$370 billion (S$523 billion) since relations were established in 1991. The Asean-China Free Trade Area (ACFTA) - the first free trade pact China signed - was instrumental in this regard, he said, and both sides should endeavour to upgrade the ACFTA. The Upgrade Protocol to the ACFTA was to have taken place after the summit, but had to be postponed.
"I understand that a few key details have still to be worked out and we are not quite ready to sign it today, and I hope in the spirit of Asean-China cooperation, we will be able to get this done without delay," he said.
Both sides should also work towards a full liberalisation of the Asean-China Air Transport Agreement signed in 2010, Mr Lee said.
The deal abolishes capacity restrictions on point-to-point flights between China and Asean member states for their respective carriers.
On the South China Sea issue, where a number of member states have overlapping claims with China, Mr Lee noted the progress that has been made on the Code of Conduct (COC) in the disputed waters, with consultations having entered a "new phase".
He said he looked forward to holding fruitful discussions on the structure and elements of the COC, and to its early conclusion. He welcomed the agreement to pursue an extension of the observation of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea to naval vessels. This code, he said, should be extended to coast guard vessels. Hotlines between foreign ministries should be put into operation as soon as possible to manage any maritime emergencies or incidents if they arise, he added.
"With close interactions, we must expect issues to arise every now and then, sometimes issues which are difficult to resolve," he said. "What is important is our ability to manage the issues calmly and constructively, without affecting the overall tone of our relationship."
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said he agreed with Mr Lee's comment that the common interests that China shares with Asean are more than the differences between them.