Vivian: Asean focused on code of conduct in S. China Sea

At the meeting in Washington on Thursday were (from left) Asean deputy secretary-general V. P. Hirubalan; Myanmar's national security adviser Thaung Tun; Foreign Ministers Prak Sokhon of Cambodia; Don Pramudwinai of Thailand; Lim Jock Seng of Brunei,
At the meeting in Washington on Thursday were (from left) Asean deputy secretary-general V. P. Hirubalan; Myanmar's national security adviser Thaung Tun; Foreign Ministers Prak Sokhon of Cambodia; Don Pramudwinai of Thailand; Lim Jock Seng of Brunei, Anifah Aman of Malaysia, Mr Rex Tillerson, Philippines' Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Laos' Foreign Minister Saleumxay Kommasith, and Vietnamese Deputy Foreign Minister Nguyen Quoc Dung.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan rejected speculation that Asean was caving in to China over disputed territory in the South China Sea, telling National Public Radio (NPR) it was more important to "have light rather than generate heat" on the issue.

And asked about the possibility of China filling a "vacuum" left by the US' withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), he said the economic logic for relating with South-east Asia was powerful and "we hope that in some fashion, America will continue this journey of building economic ties with us".

The US withdrawal had been disappointing, he said. But Asean, as a vibrant market with a young population, was building economic bridges across the globe. "We want a regional, all-encompassing, welcoming architecture and America is most welcome to participate."

"South-east Asia supports half a million American jobs. America has more invested in South-east Asia than it has in India, China and Japan combined. American prosperity is at stake. This is an area that is replete with opportunities too big to miss."

 Dr Balakrishnan was speaking a day after meeting US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson along with other Asean foreign ministers.

The ministers met US-Asean Business Council members and spoke at a discussion at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. They were also scheduled to meet US National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster yesterday. 

Asked about the South China Sea dispute, Dr Balakrishnan told NPR: "What we want is a rules-based world order that complies with international law and has access to peaceful ways of resolving differences."

Several Asean members, including Vietnam and the Philippines, have overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea, especially with China, which has been building civilian and military facilities on expanded land features. The moves have caused alarm in the region.

At the meeting with the ministers, Mr Tillerson noted the US and Asean were aligned on principles and objectives, and Asean partners could count on the US to assert the rights of all to free air and maritime passage in the South China Sea.

Freedom of navigation operations by American warships would continue, the State Department's Deputy Assistant Secretary for South-east Asia Patrick Murphy told reporters afterwards.

Dr Balakrishnan cautioned that "territorial disputes by definition will always be difficult to resolve".

"What Asean is focused on right now is to settle the framework for a code of conduct," he said. 

This would set rules of engagement as an important first step to building confidence, he said, so that "we can keep the peace, keep trade routes open, keep diplomatic channels open".

Nirmal Ghosh

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 06, 2017, with the headline 'Vivian: Asean focused on code of conduct in S. China Sea'. Print Edition | Subscribe