KUALA LUMPUR – Singapore will be an honest broker when it comes to the Asean-China relationship, and will strive to take the partnership to a higher plane, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Saturday (Nov 21).
Describing ASEAN-China relations as broad and deep, with closely intertwined interests in a common neighbourhood, Mr Lee said: “We should focus on the positives of this strategic partnership and we should ensure that individual issues and problems do not overshadow our engagement.”
Both Mr Lee and his Malaysian counterpart Najib Razak also affirmed the Asean-China relationship as one based on the principles of mutual respect and Asean centrality – the idea that Asean should play a leading role in the region.
With Singapore taking over the role of Asean-China coordinator from Thailand this year, Mr Lee sketched out in Singapore’s plans to strengthen the relationship in three areas: trade, air links, and the South China Sea issue.
On economic development, Mr Lee noted that China is the top trading partner for almost every ASEAN Member State, with two-way trade having expanded nearly fifty-fold from US$8 billion to US$370 billion since relations were established in 1991.
The ASEAN-China Free Trade Area (CFTA) - the first FTA that China signed - was instrumental in this regard, he said, and both sides should endeavour to upgrade the ACFTA.
“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, after a signing ceremony was cancelled at the last minute on Saturday (21/11).
Both sides should also work towards a full liberalisation of the ASEAN-China Air Transport Agreement, said Mr Lee. Signed in 2010, the agreement 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 South China Sea, with consultations having entered a “new phase”.
Mr Lee said he looked forward to holding fruitful discussions on the structure and elements of the COC, and to its early conclusion. He also suggested extending the Code of Unplanned Encounters at Sea to coast guard vessels, as well as operationalising hotlines between foreign ministries as soon as possible to manage any maritime emergencies or incidents should they arise.
“With close interactions, we must expect issues to arise every now and then, sometimes issues which are difificult 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.”
On his part, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said he agreed with Mr Lee’s remarks, and that the common interests that China shares with Asean are more than the differences. He pledged to also continue expanding the relationship in a productive manner.