BUDGET DEBATE - MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS

South China Sea spats test Asean's solidarity

Shanmugam lists ways for grouping to regain unity and credibility

ASEAN needs to regain its unity and credibility after its solidarity was tested last year by disagreements over competing claims in the South China Sea, Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam said yesterday.

Responding to MPs' questions on the regional grouping, he warned of more challenges with the Philippines' arbitration proceedings against China, which will not take part in them.

"The tribunal may proceed even without China's participation. And we can only hope that all parties will remain calm," he said during a debate on his ministry's spending plans for the year.

MPs Irene Ng (Tampines GRC), Lim Wee Kiak (Nee Soon GRC) and Fatimah Lateef (Marine Parade GRC) brought up last July's Asean Ministerial Meeting which was dogged by the longstanding territorial dispute involving claims by China and four Asean states: Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Ms Ng blamed Cambodia, the Asean chair last year, for the failure to produce a joint statement. She said Cambodia was under pressure from China, its largest investor and aid donor.

She called on Singapore to take a more pro-active role to get Asean back on track.

Dr Lim wanted to know the broader implications on Asean's credibility and its plans for a regional community by 2015.

Mr Shanmugam acknowledged that "2012 was not a year that Asean could be particularly proud of".

He said: "Its unity and credibility were painfully tested by the South China Sea issue during Cambodia's chairmanship. Ongoing developments in the South China Sea will continue to present challenges."

He reiterated that it was a national decision for the Philippines to initiate arbitration proceedings against China. Asean was not consulted.

Over the past year, officials from Asean and China have held several rounds of informal consultations towards the adoption of a Code of Conduct, to better manage tensions that may arise.

Senior officials from both sides will meet next month in Beijing.

Mr Shanmugam assured the MPs: "Asean is united in the view that formal discussions between all 10 Asean members and China on the Code of Conduct should begin as soon as possible."

The proposed Code will focus on issues such as preventing incidents at sea, crisis management and confidence-building measures.

He cited three ways for Asean to regain its unity and credibility:

One, realise targets to build a community by 2015, like the Asean Economic Community and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

Two, remain relevant and effective, and take positions on key issues affecting the region, including the South China Sea.

Three, retain Asean's central role in regional groupings, particularly in the East Asia Summit.

Expressing confidence in Brunei's chairmanship this year, he said: "Brunei is an experienced and committed member of Asean. We are confident that it will promote consensus through consultations with all Asean members and our dialogue partners."

He stressed Singapore's strong support for Brunei: "We will work closely together with the others to ensure that its chairmanship is a success."

chinlian@sph.com.sg

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