THE relationship between China and Asean is a multifaceted one and should not be dominated by the issue of simmering territorial disputes in the South China Sea, Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam said yesterday.
Speaking to reporters in Beijing after an hour-long private discussion with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi that he described as "wide-ranging, frank and candid", Mr Shanmugam said this was a common view held by Singapore and China.
"I can say that our common view is that no one issue should dominate the agenda between China and Singapore and Asean. And really, the role that China and Asean play to each other is multifaceted."
Emphasising the importance of trade ties between China and the Asean states, he noted that the Asian giant is the largest trading partner of most of the 10 Asean members, including Singapore. As of last year, Singapore was also the largest source of foreign investment in China.
China's economic and political initiatives with Asean are "extremely important", he added.
Mr Shanmugam is on a three-day visit to Beijing, Suzhou and Shanghai, his third trip to China since he became foreign minister in 2011.
For his part, Mr Wang told reporters that China is willing to work with Asean to continue to build friendly ties and maintain stability in the region, including in the South China Sea.
"We have confidence that we can achieve that," he said.
The conciliatory statements follow weeks of escalating tension in the South China Sea, after Manila took Beijing to the international tribunal in March over the latter's claim to most of the waters, and China last month deployed an oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam. Chinese and Vietnamese ships have since clashed repeatedly, while anti- China riots in Vietnam killed at least two last month.
Asean has stressed its neutrality over the rival territorial claims of four of its members as well as China and Taiwan in the resource-rich waters. But its foreign ministers last month issued a joint statement after China placed its oil rig near the Paracel Islands, calling on all parties to exercise self-restraint and act in accordance with international law.
The statement also emphasised the need for "expeditiously working towards an early conclusion of the code of conduct in the South China Sea" that would legally bind all parties to manage disputes peacefully.
After resisting the idea for a decade, China last year agreed to start talks with Asean on the code of conduct.
Yesterday, Mr Shanmugam, who is also Law Minister, also met Procurator-General Cao Jianming and State Councillor and former foreign minister Yang Jiechi. Today, he will meet Chinese Vice-President Li Yuanchao before departing for Suzhou.
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