China and Asean have agreed to explore Singapore's proposal of an expanded Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (Cues) that includes coast guard ships to help prevent untoward clashes in the South China Sea, Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan has said.
The key now is to introduce the code quick enough to make the sea safer and build confidence while China and Asean speed up talks for a Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea, he told the Singapore media yesterday.
He said the proposal was made as part of Singapore's role as country coordinator for China-Asean relations for a three-year term that started from last August.
"We're in the situation of not being a claimant-state, which is good because it allows us to play a neutral role as we don't make any claims," added Dr Balakrishnan.
"We don't have to make any judgment as to the merits of competing arguments. Our objective is to promote peace and stability, focus on peaceful resolution of differences or conflicts, and to be an honest broker."
Dr Balakrishnan was on a two-day trip to China, his first since becoming Foreign Minister last October and right after attending an Asean foreign ministers' retreat in Laos last weekend.
He met Chinese Vice-President Li Yuanchao and Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Monday.
Yesterday, he met State Councillor Yang Jiechi, the Communist Party's international relations department head Song Tao, and Cyberspace Administration head Lu Wei.
Dr Balakrishnan had told reporters after his meeting with Mr Wang that they discussed exploratory ideas of a Cues but did not provide details.
Yesterday, he revealed the scope of the proposed Cues that builds on a code signed in 2014 by 21 members of the Western Pacific Naval Symposium that covers naval vessels and aircraft.
The symposium is biennial and discusses naval issues. It includes China and eight Asean states. There have been growing calls for a Cues in the South China Sea - where there are rival territorial claims by China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia - that includes coast guard vessels and even civilian ships.
Fears of conflict have risen amid China's construction of military facilities and deployment of missile systems on islands and reefs in the South China Sea, and amid freedom of navigation and overflight missions by the United States.
Dr Balakrishnan said it is important to get buy-in and commitment from Asean and China on Singapore's proposal before considering the inclusion of civilian ships.
Asked about perceptions of China dragging its feet on formulating the COC, Dr Balakrishnan said Mr Wang had pledged to speed up talks and that negotiators are meeting this month.
"But I don't want to underestimate the challenges. When disputes involve national sovereignty, don't underestimate the complexity of the negotiations involved," he said.