Singapore and China are working on some exploratory ideas to minimise the risk of unplanned encounters at sea, amid increased fears of potential clashes between Chinese and foreign militaries in the contentious South China Sea.
Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said he discussed the ideas with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi at their meeting yesterday, and that both sides would work on them in the coming months.
Speaking to reporters later without taking questions, Dr Balakrishnan said both sides had "very frank, useful and constructive" discussions on the South China Sea disputes and that Singapore, though not a claimant state, has to fulfil its role as country coordinator of China-Asean relations.
BIG STAKE IN ENSURING PEACE
We reaffirmed the importance of peace and stability and freedom of navigation and overflight. This is an essential lifeline for China and all Asean countries because so much of our trade and energy flow through this area. So we all have a big stake in ensuring peace and stability.
FOREIGN MINISTER VIVIAN BALAKRISHNAN, on the South China Sea disputes
"We reaffirmed the importance of peace and stability and freedom of navigation and overflight. This is an essential lifeline for China and all Asean countries because so much of our trade and energy flow through this area.
"So we all have a big stake in ensuring peace and stability," said Dr Balakrishnan, who is making his first visit to China since becoming Foreign Minister on Oct 1 last year.
He added that both also discussed the importance of complying with the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and speeding up negotiations on formulating a Code of Conduct.
The South China Sea faces competing territorial claims from China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. Tensions have risen of late as Beijing builds new islands and deploys military equipment, while US Navy vessels and planes conduct freedom of navigation and overflight missions.
In an op-ed article published in the China Daily yesterday, Dr Balakrishnan said Singapore "will work objectively with all parties to promote positive and forward-looking Asean-China relations" by "sensibly managing" the disputes.
Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that Dr Balakrishnan also conveyed the concerns expressed by Asean foreign ministers at their retreat last Saturday as well as "the importance of non-militarisation and self-restraint in the conduct of activities to lower the temperature and prevent incidents in the South China Sea".
Mr Wang told reporters he believes Singapore could play a positive and constructive role though he stressed that it is not an issue between China and Asean.
"Also, some Asean members oppose 'specific forces' from stirring up the issue," said Mr Wang, as he advocated China's dual-track policy of conducting direct negotiations with claimant states and working with Asean members on maintaining peace and stability.
Dr Balakrishnan stressed that the areas of convergence and opportunities for collaboration between China and Asean "are far, far greater" than the areas of differences as both sides mark 25 years of relations this year through activities including a commemorative summit in Vientiane, Laos, in September.
Sino-Singapore cooperation, such as progress on the upgrade of the bilateral free trade pact and also the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative, which is the third government-led project between both sides, also figured in Dr Balakrishnan's meetings with Mr Wang and Vice-President Li Yuanchao yesterday.
He is due to meet State Councillor Yang Jiechi and Cyberspace Administration head Lu Wei today before ending his trip.