China should review its policy of not allowing disputes over territorial sovereignty to be referred to a third party, Singapore's Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh urged yesterday at a public forum here amid maritime disputes in the South China Sea that have soured ties between China and Asean.
Singapore's former foreign minister George Yeo, weighing in on the issue at a separate forum, asked China to take a "big-hearted approach".
Speaking at the 10th China-Singapore Forum, Professor Koh said: "My plea to China is that it should reflect upon and reconsider its national policy that says (that with regard to) all disputes over territorial sovereignty, China will not agree to refer it to a third party. As long as it takes this position, it's impossible to settle these disputes by legal means."
This presents an obstacle to harmonious ties between China and Asean, he said, which had enjoyed good relations until 2009, when Beijing informed the United Nations that it had indisputable sovereignty over islands in the South China Sea.
Over at Peking University's North Pavilion Dialogue, Mr Yeo said: "Towards South-east Asia, because China is bigger and stronger, where there is room for manoeuvre, it is better for China to take a big-hearted approach." He added: "That will help China have good relations with the Philippines, Vietnam and Asean."
The dialogue is aimed at offering a platform for the frank exchange of views on security issues.
Recounting a trip to North Korea when he was foreign minister, Mr Yeo said he was told when travelling through the Chinese border town of Dandong that some of the islands in the Yalu River very close to the Chinese side belonged to North Korea.
"I was told by my guide that China gave them to the North Koreans on one condition, that the entire Yalu River is opened to navigation on both sides. So China, in return for open access to the Yalu River... took the generous approach," he said.
China claims up to 90 per cent of the South China Sea, also claimed in part by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
Both men's comments come as the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague is expected to announce soon whether it has jurisdiction to rule on the Philippines' case against China's claims in the sea.
In his address, Prof Koh also said Asean recognises that a "deficit of trust" exists between many states in the region, which poses a threat to regional peace and stability.
"The reality is that there are many problems and we must recognise that they exist. It's Asean's mission to replace the current distrust with trust, suspicion with mutual confidence, and discomfort with comfort. We invite China to join us in this important task," he said.
Prof Koh also weighed in on the importance of the recently concluded 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) for Singapore. He said the successful negotiation of the deal is a vindication of what Singapore started in 2006 when it founded the TPP with Chile, New Zealand and Brunei as it sought to establish a paving stone that would lead to free trade in the Asia Pacific.
"And so the TPP is not inconsistent with the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP) that China is pushing," he stressed, adding that China should look at joining the TPP. Beijing's proposal last November for the FTAAP involving 21 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation members is widely seen as a counter to the US-led TPP. Prof Koh said the TPP is also beneficial to Singapore as it opens up the Mexico and Canada markets to exporters. Singapore has free trade pacts with all TPP members except these two.
While observers often focus on the state of US-China ties, Mr Yeo believes Sino-India ties are the ones to watch in the longer term. By 2050, India could be the world's third-largest economy, he noted.
"If India and China maintain good ties, automatically Asean will have good relations with both. And if you add up their populations, that's half the world. In other words... half the world will be stable and it'll be very good for the whole world."