Singapore takes no position on the merits of specific claims in territorial disputes in the South China Sea, said Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan yesterday.
While it believes that overlapping sovereignty claims should be settled by the parties concerned, this should be done in accordance with international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, he told Parliament.
"All parties should refrain from provocative behaviour that could raise tensions in the South China Sea," he added.
His restating of Singapore's stand comes as an arbitral tribunal in The Hague publishes its findings today on a case lodged by the Philippines contesting China's claims.
He was responding to a question from Non-Constituency MP Dennis Tan on the Foreign Ministry's plans to reinforce a common Asean position on the South China Sea issue, in view of the fact that Singapore is currently the Asean- China dialogue partnership coordinator.
Dr Balakrishnan told the House that the question comes at a sensitive moment and he had to be extra careful in his reply.
He said Asean's last public consensus position on the South China Sea was reflected in the chairman's statement following a retreat of Asean foreign ministers in Vientiane in February, a sentiment the Asean ministers conveyed at the special Asean-China Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Kunming on June 14.
"The media attention after that meeting on the failure to issue an Asean Joint Press Statement in fact reflects the importance the international community places on Asean's unity and on developments in the South China Sea," he said.
"The 49th Asean Foreign Ministers' Meeting is scheduled in two weeks' time and I'm sure this issue will arise again," he added.
Singapore, he said, is not currently chairman of Asean or a claimant state in the South China Sea.
The Philippines' arbitration proceedings against China "was a national decision undertaken by the Philippines without consultation with the rest of us", he added.
He also restated Singapore's position that overlapping claims be settled by parties concerned in accordance with international law.
And as the current country coordinator for Asean-China relations, "Singapore will fully support and facilitate Asean-led processes to manage or help manage tensions".
"We will continue to perform this role in a transparent, objective manner, with the aim of preserving Asean unity and credibility while simultaneously advancing our multi- faceted and mutually beneficial relationship with China," he added.
Dr Balakrishnan noted that some, albeit slow, progress in confidence- building and conflict prevention measures had been made.
"Singapore will continue to work closely with all stakeholders to advance Asean unity, credibility and centrality," he added.
Mr Tan also asked whether Singapore will pursue a joint Asean statement and what Singapore's stand on the tribunal ruling will be.
Dr Balakrishnan said: "It would be ideal that Asean speaks with a common voice, but on the basis of consensus... a key tenet by which Asean arrives at decisions."
Whether there will be a joint Asean statement, he added, "depends on the ruling, on the respective analysis and assessments by the sovereign countries, and then on whether there is a consensus".