THE critical challenge facing Asia today is setting up a structure to deal with rising tensions over territorial disputes in the region, says Singapore's Minister for Foreign Affairs and Law, Mr K. Shanmugam.
The actual disputes will take a very long time to settle but clashes between claimant states would be terrible for the region, he said in an interview with the BBC broadcast live yesterday morning.
Mr Shanmugam was making reference to two sets of territorial disputes: that between China and Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands - though he ruled out the possibility of a clash between the two - and those between China and four Asean states in the South China Sea.
"The real issue is whether we can put in place a modus vivendi to deal with territorial/ sovereignty issues," he said. Asean, he noted, has been trying to make clear that such disputes can be solved only by the claimant states themselves but through a mechanism "that shows and tells people how they have to structure their conduct with each other".
He referred to the proposed Code of Conduct (COC) for the South China Sea being formulated between Asean and China. The proposed COC will focus on issues like preventing incidents at sea, crisis management and confidence-building measures.
"(The) sooner we start on that, the better," Mr Shanmugam said.
The Foreign Minister was also asked about China's reluctance to deal with Asean as a bloc on the overlapping disputes in the South China Sea.
He responded that Singapore's position has been that the "COC would apply to all countries, on how they will interact with each other in this region. And that's the position that Singapore has taken. The disputes can only be sorted out between the claimant states themselves".
On the dispute between China and Japan, he was optimistic that leaders on both sides would not aggravate tensions.
He said: "China is the second largest economy in the world and Japan the third, and both are linked inextricably to the United States. Any clash between them would be disastrous, both for them and the rest of the region. Both sets of leaders know that, everyone else knows that, and I think they will try and see that they put in place a structure that avoids that."
Mr Shanmugam also dismissed as "sexy" the notion that US President Barack Obama's "pivot to Asia" policy had led China to take on a much more assertive, dominant role in the region.
He said one should expect China to want to develop a defence capability consistent with its economic weight in the world. At the same time, the US has always had a strong presence in the region, and Singapore and other states had welcomed that as it helped to maintain regional peace which also benefited China's growth.
The real issue was how the US presence was characterised, he said. "If America sets it up as one in opposition to China, then I think you're creating tension.
"But if it is one to promote regional peace and one in which China takes part, and we have regional mechanisms for both countries and other countries in the region to come together, then I think it's positive."