Freedom of navigation key to S'pore: Shanmugam

SINGAPORE - Freedom of navigation on the high seas is an economically existential issue for Singapore, as trade flow is vital to the country's existence as a sovereign state, Foreign Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam told Parliament on Thursday.

At the same time, China has confirmed at the highest levels, including through Premier Li Keqiang, that it guarantees freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, he noted during the Committee of Supply debate on his ministry's budget.

Mr Shanmugam was replying to a question by Non-Constituency MP Gerald Giam, who expressed concern about China's extensive building on reefs and islands in those waters. Mr Giam asked what Singapore, and Asean, would do if China threatens freedom of navigation.

"At this stage, that remains a hypothetical question," Mr Shanmugam replied, citing the assurances by top Chinese officials.

"We cannot presuppose, one way or another, whether China is entitled to build on these islands and reefs, because that's a circular question," he said.

"It depends on whether China owns those islands and to what extent it has an EEZ (exclusive economic zone) and to what extent it has territorial sea, and whether these are islands which are capable of generating either territorial sea or EEZ.

"And these are questions on which we take no position," he said. "They are to be sorted out between the various claimant states and subject to international law."

Asean has begun negotiations with Beijing to agree on a framework or Code of Conduct to better manage tensions at sea.

Four Asean countries - Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam - have territorial claims in the South China Sea that overlap with China, and tense incidents over the past year have lent urgency to the need for this code.

Singapore's task is to focus on this code, said Mr Shanmugam, who noted that China has indicated its willingness to work towards it, most recently at the Asean-China Summit in Naypyitaw last November. Asean also provides a platform, whether at the Asean-China, Asean Plus Three or East Asia Summits, for officials to discuss these issues with China at the highest levels, he added.

Dr Lim Wee Kiak (Nee Soon GRC), Ms Ellen Lee (Sembawang GRC) and Mr Ong Teng Koon (Sembawang GRC) had also asked about the situation in the Asia-Pacific, including relations between major powers.

Against the backdrop of tensions in the South China Sea, Mr Shanmugam stressed it was important to remember that the Asean-China partnership is a broadbased one.

China is either the largest or second largest trading partner and investor in most Asean countries, and the relationship between Beijing and South-east Asian capitals has deepened.

"If you look at mainland South-east Asia, it is being criss-crossed with infrastructure, often financed by Chinese capital and built by Chinese companies, which integrates mainland South-east Asia effectively with southern China," he said.

"It increases their economic vibrancy and the whole region is becoming integrated economically."

China is also the engine driving important regional initiatives such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which aims to fund key development projects.

"We try and keep relations on an even keel," he added, noting that Singapore takes over from Thailand as country coordinator of Asean-China dialogue relations later this year.

"We have limited influence on major power relations," he said, adding that Singapore has created a small role through its active participation in regional platforms.

"We try to be an honest broker in dealing with these issues and in our relations with the major powers," he said. "We work closely with like-minded countries to encourage the constructive engagement of the major powers in our region."