ASEAN leaders yesterday pledged to strengthen unity and solidarity, and called on all parties to refrain from taking actions that would further escalate tensions in the South China Sea, following a week when disputes there threatened to test the cohesiveness of the 10-member grouping.
The pledge was in a declaration issued at the end of the grouping's 24th summit, at which recent incidents between China and Vietnam, and China and the Philippines, threatened to overshadow the feel-good factor of Myanmar's first ever chairmanship of Asean.
The leaders also reiterated a call to work towards an early conclusion of a code of conduct to manage disputes in the resource-rich waters without the use of force.
But even as they did so, China sent fighter jets to join the group of vessels tasked with guarding the oil rig HD 981 at the centre of a recent collision between its ships and Vietnam's.
Speaking at the Asean leaders' retreat yesterday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the recent incidents were a wake-up call and made clear the urgent need for a code of conduct to be completed. He called on Asean leaders to provide strong political support for the challenging process of negotiating the code, saying it was needed "to prevent future mishaps".
Besides the flare-up between China and Vietnam, the Philippines has also detained crewmen of a Chinese fishing boat near the disputed Spratly islands.
Mr Lee said "such incidents could easily spiral out of control, trigger unintended consequences and undermine confidence in our region".
He also underlined the need for Asean to stay united in an uncertain global environment, and said that despite different strategic perspectives, the Asean 10 share fundamental interests, as set out in the 1967 Bangkok Declaration, the association's founding document.
A united Asean is critical for member states to manage regional uncertainties that could overwhelm them individually, to moderate the frictions in relations between major powers, and promote an open, inclusive and transparent regional architecture, he said.
"Conversely, a divided Asean undermines our credibility, and relevance to the world," he added.
Mr Lee's call for unity came a day after Asean foreign ministers issued a statement expressing serious concerns over incidents in the South China Sea in the days leading up to the summit.
It was a statement which Asean Secretary-General Le Luong Minh said would test the intentions of China on concluding a code of conduct, and which he hoped would send a message to China about the need for peace and stability in the region.
China responded to the statement late on Saturday night. It said the South China Sea issue was not a problem between China and Asean but a problem of "one or two countries' attempts to use the South Sea issue to harm the overall friendship and cooperation between China and Asean".
Speaking to Singapore reporters yesterday, Mr Lee said that was consistent with China's position that the disputes were bilateral issues.
While Asean does not take a view on the merits of the individual claims, Mr Lee said it had to take a view on the overall issue "because it is happening on our doorstep, and we must have a view because the security and stability of the region depend on what happens in the South China Sea...
"That is why the Asean (foreign) ministers put out a statement, and that is Singapore's consistent, long-held and long-expressed position also."