MANILA - Asean's leaders formally launched official talks with China on a code of conduct for managing tensions in the South China Sea on Monday (Nov 13), noting that the disputed waters are "calmer now".
But this current progress cannot be taken for granted, they said in a common statement at the 20th Asean-China Summit.
In the statement, the Asean members called on parties to cooperate further in maritime issues to continue to build confidence and trust in one another, so as to deepen this peace.
It was delivered by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, as Singapore is the country currently coordinating Asean-China dialogue relations.
China reciprocated the warmth, with Chinese premier Li Keqiang saying that China "always sees Asean as a priority in our neighbourhood diplomacy".
"We are committed to working with Asean to be good neighbours, good friends and good partners, and to always stand together rain or shine. We're also committed to working with Asean to build a community of shared future featuring common ideals, prosperity and a common responsibility," he added in his opening remarks, which did not explicitly mention the South China Sea.
The seeds to start negotiations on a legally binding code of conduct were planted in August when foreign ministers from Asean and China agreed on the framework for the code to prevent skirmishes from escalating into open conflict.
"I trust that we will continue this positive momentum and work towards a substantive and effective code of conduct. I look forward to its early conclusion," said PM Lee.
Cooperation like this is important to maintain peace, stability, freedom of navigation in and over-flight above the South China Sea in accordance with international law, he said.
"It is in our collective interest to avoid miscalculations that could lead to escalation of tensions," he added.
Asean therefore remains committed to fully and effectively implementing the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in its entirety.
Trust can also be built through practical maritime cooperation such as the Declaration on a Decade of Coastal and Marine Environmental Protection in the South China Sea, which Asean adopted on Monday.
The South China Sea issue cuts to the heart of Asean-China relations, said PM Lee as he looked ahead to Asean working with China in 2018, when Singapore will take over the the group's rotating chairmanship.
"By managing the South China Sea issue well, we can keep Asean-China relations on the current positive trajectory," he added.
Asean cooperates with China on many fronts, including tourism, trade and infrastructure, and "key to this agenda must be the foundation of solid Asean-China relations," he said.
"Good Asean-China relations are important to the region's stability and development."
COOPERATION IN INFRASTRUCTURE, TOURISM
Asean and China can also work together on developing infrastructure, said PM Lee, who welcomed ongoing efforts to "explore synergies" between Asean's Master Plan on Connectivity and China's Belt and Road initiative.
Both sides should work towards the full liberalisation of the Asean-China Air Transport Agreement, he added.
"We look forward to greater cooperation through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Silk Road Fund to enhance regional infrastructure development," he said.
Asean and China were slated to issue a joint statement on infrastructure connectivity cooperation on Monday. Both sides are also cooperating in boosting tourism and fighting corruption, which they will issue joint statements on as well.
Tourism figures between the two have grown, and 19.8 million Chinese tourists vacationed in South-east Asia while 10.3 million South-east Asians visited China last year (2016), surpassing the target of 30 million two-way tourist arrivals Premier Li had set for 2020.
This year's figures are likely to be even higher.
Asean can learn from China in the areas of fintech, e-commerce and smart cities, PM Lee added.
Singapore wants to focus on innovation and addressing security threats, among other things, when it takes over the group's rotating chairmanship in 2018.
PM Lee recounted his official visit to China in September, when he met China's President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang.
"We affirmed the importance of maintaining the positive trajectory of Asean-China relations, and explored ways to take the relationship forward," he said.
PM Lee added that as chairman, "Singapore will continue to serve as an honest broker and work closely with China and other Asean member states to promote greater mutual understanding and cooperation between Asean and China."