Asean should never underestimate the moral force it can exert collectively to get countries to abide by the rules-based order in the region, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said.
Her comments came as the 10-nation grouping negotiates a Code of Conduct (COC) with China on a longstanding territorial dispute over the South China Sea amid Beijing's increasingly assertive stance.
"With a combined GDP of US$2.5 trillion (S$3.5 trillion), Asean has an opportunity for leadership," Ms Bishop said at a lecture organised by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies at the Fullerton Hotel yesterday.
"It can do that through advocacy of a rules-based order... Asean should never underestimate the moral force it can exert in the form of collective diplomatic pressure on the countries that might think or behave differently," added Ms Bishop, without naming any country.
China's claim to some 90 per cent of the South China Sea overlaps with those of Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and also Taiwan. Beijing has been building artificial islands and adding military and civilian installations to bolster its stake.
Last July, an international tribunal ruled against Beijing's claims in a case filed by Manila. China rejected the ruling, but agreed at an Asean summit later that month to speed up long-stalled COC negotiations and complete the framework for the COC by the first half of this year.
Australia says it takes no sides on South China Sea disputes but has called for the rule of law and supported US-led "freedom of navigation" activities in the region. The United States, the Philippines' long-time ally, has been sending ships and aircraft to patrol the South China Sea.
Ms Bishop yesterday said the US must play an even greater role as "an indispensable strategic power in the Indo-Pacific" to preserve the region's peace amid the territorial tensions. Many regional countries are in a "strategic holding pattern", she said, amid uncertainty over US foreign policy under mercurial President Donald Trump.
Noting that regional states have been hosting American military assets, Ms Bishop said: "The US... is obliged to use its power and influence to provide public security goods to the region and not simply assume its narrow national interests."
The Australian minister, who is in Singapore on a two-day visit, called on Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and met her counterpart, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, earlier yesterday. The two foreign ministers reaffirmed the excellent relations between the two countries, and noted the good progress made on the implementation of the Singapore-Australia Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.
Ms Bishop also launched an office for Australian start-ups in one-north.