Negotiations for a pact between Asean nations and China aimed at easing tensions in the South China Sea are to begin later this month, said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen early today at the Munich Security Conference in Germany.
Asean and China agreed at their summit in Singapore last November to the early conclusion of a code of conduct (COC) for the South China Sea.
"(Chinese) PM Li Keqiang, in Singapore in November last year, set a proposed timeline for the COC to be finished in three years," noted Dr Ng, speaking at the Maritime Security Roundtable at the Munich Security Conference and Nato Centre of Excellence for Operations in Confined and Shallow Waters.
The code will set out norms of behaviour in the contested waters.
China and several Asean members - Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam - have overlapping claims in the disputed waters.
Asean and China have been working to fully implement the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties, the precursor to the COC, since 2002.
Negotiations on the COC began in March last year, following the adoption in 2017 of the framework for the COC.
"As ADMM/ADMM-Plus Chair last year, we developed the Guidelines for Air Military Encounters (Game), the first of its kind in the world," Dr Ng said today, referring to the Asean Defence Ministers' Meetings.
"As the Asean-China coordinator, we also facilitated the successful conduct of the Asean-China Maritime Exercise among Asean and Chinese navies in 2018," he said, according to the Ministry of Defence.
"All of these are practical confidence-building measures that minimise the risk of miscalculations, and build trust and confidence among militaries," he said at the round table titled "Bridging Troubled Waters - Deconflicting The South China Sea Dispute".
Noting that no one thinks any country would attempt to forcibly push the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) out of the features on which it has built military bases in the South China Sea, Dr Ng tried to put things in perspective.
"Do the PLA bases and infrastructure in the South China Sea make it an equivalent of the Indopacom (US Indo-Pacific Command) in Hawaii?" he said.
"The military facilities in Guam are approximately 12 times the size of China's expanded features in the South China Sea; and Hawaii, about 70 times; Iwo Jima, a key island in the Pacific Theatre where the US and Japan had fought over in World War II, is comparable - about 11/2 times."
Still, to ensure stability in the South China Sea, Asean has taken a practical approach, to work on the COC "to constrain if not bind behaviour", said Dr Ng.