MANILA - A strong sense of common will exists among Asean member nations and China to reach an agreement on guidelines for a code of conduct on the South China Sea, Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said on Friday (April 28).
Speaking to reporters after the Asean Ministers' Meeting, he said he was "reasonably confident" that a framework on the code of conduct will be completed by the middle of the year.
"I think there is a strong sense of common will on the part of all parties to this to get it done, and it's important for building confidence and reducing the temperature in the South China Sea," he said after meeting his counterparts from fellow Asean countries.
"The world is not short of crises and issues... and we don't need problems in the South China Sea," he added.
At an earlier meeting this year, Asean foreign ministers had set a deadline of June for the framework on the code of conduct to be completed. It sets the parameters by which parties can negotiate a legally-binding code of conduct on behaviour in the disputed waters.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had said on Thursday (April 27) that he would not be bringing up China's island-building in contested areas of the South China Sea and the ruling of an international tribunal against China when Asean leaders meet on Saturday.
He said there was no point in bringing up the matter as China cannot be pressured, adding that dialogue was the only option.
China claims territories in the South China Sea that are also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, and tensions have risen in these waters in recent years.
On reports that Asean may be taking a softer tone on the issue, Dr Balakrishnan said: "I wouldn't want to characterise this as a softer or harder tone. But things are moving in a positive direction."
He said that a framework will pave the way for negotiations on a legally-binding code of conduct and is an important step in ensuring "greater confidence and a sense of cooperation between China on one hand, and the claimant states in Asean and the rest of us who are not claimant states as well".
He added: "It will not be easy. But if we can do this and move things step-by-step in the right direction, it will build greater confidence."