VIENTIANE - Singapore's prime minister Lee Hsien Loong has called for Asean and China to keep relations in proper perspective, saying that overall relations were much broader than one issue.
According to his press secretary Chang Li Lin, Mr Lee, who delivered an address at the Asean-China dialogue in Vientiane on Wednesday (Sept 7) morning, said that China's success benefits the region, and that it was also in the China's interest for Asean to succeed.
Relations between the Asian giant and 10-nation bloc have been dogged by territorial disputes in the South China Sea in recent years, to the extent of threatening Asean's consensus-driven unity.
China claims almost all the strategic and resource-rich waterway, while Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei have laid claims on some sections.
China has created outposts from islands it has reclaimed from the contested waters, sparking fears of a military build-up in the region. It has also ignored an arbitral tribunal ruling in July - initiated by the Philippines - that demolished its historical claims to this sea, and also leaned on its allies within Asean to prevent the bloc from taking a common position on the issue.
To reduce the chances of a maritime flare-up, Asean and Chinese leaders on Wednesday adopted a joint statement on the application of the code of unplanned encounters at sea, and also guidelines for hotline communications among senior officials during maritime emergencies.
Mr Lee welcomed China's proposal in July to formulate a framework for a binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea by the first half of next year, and added that Asean would work with China to fast-track negotiations on the matter.
Even in the strongest of relationships, said Mr Lee, issues will arise from time to time. Every crisis presents an opportunity, and the South China Sea issue can be turned to Asean's advantage in pursuit of regional peace and stability, that would enable continued economic growth, he said.
And economic relations have kept pace with the times since the 2004 Asean-China free trade agreement.
This would bring all parties close to the target of US$1 trillion (S$1.4 trillion) in bilateral trade and US$150 billion in investments by 2020. By then, he said, Asean could potentially surpass the European Union and United States as Asean's trading partner.