China's territorial disputes

Asean can't sort out claims but can advocate for peaceful process to deal with them: Shanmugam

In remarks to The Straits Times following his recent visit to Beijing, Singapore Foreign Minister K Shanmugam gave his views on Singapore's relationship with China, and the role Asean can play in the region's territorial disputes.

On relations between Singapore and ChinaMr Shanmugam: Singapore and China are old friends, starting from the time of China’s paramount leader, Mr Deng Xiaoping, and our first Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew.However, the relationship is much older than that. Last year, we were the largest foreign investor in China and China’s second-largest trading partner in Asean. Currently, we are also the second largest RMB trading center outside China (after Hong Kong).Singapore and China have two very important government-to-government projects. Suzhou is celebrating its 20th anniversary of establishment this year.President Xi Jinping visited the Tianjin Eco-city and asked other cities in China to follow the model. This project is potentially a very important innovation.There are a number of other projects - the Knowledge City in Guangzhou and the food safety project in Jilin. A number of them are private sector-led, with blessings from the government.Our political relationship is also very strong. Last year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong visited China and met all the top Chinese leaders.This year, he will be in China again, once for APEC, and once for the China-ASEAN Expo, where Singapore is a country of honour.Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean will visit three times. Both countries are also moving beyond our traditional areas of cooperation into social governance. We are also constantly working together on innovating for the future.In people-to-people relationships, tourism and other areas, the picture is rosy. Next year, we hope to mark the 25th anniversary of our diplomatic relations with state visits on both sides.

On the role Singapore can play in mediating ties between China and other countriesMr Shanmugam: Singapore is seen as both Asian but at the same time, westernised. We are small, not a threat to anyone and can speak freely and frankly.In a speech to the American Jewish Community Global Forum I made in May this year and in a speech I made at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington in 2012, I talked about China, its issues and problems, and why China would rather be left alone for the time being.But at the same time, no Chinese leaders can afford to be seen to be weak. If China is pushed, it has to react. It cannot afford to lose or be seen to be giving up on territorial sovereignty.So we explain China’s position in a very fair manner. When we speak to Chinese leaders, we are also frank and fair.We say: you have to accept that public opinion in many countries is being influenced against China. It is not good for China because when public opinion in some of these countries hardens, it is very difficult to change.In order for China to have a positive international image, its actions in the seas or on land must be seen in accordance with the rules. If so, it will be difficult to fault China.For example, the latest statement China has put in to the UN Secretary General is a very good one.It shows that China accepts international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).It talks about Triton, the Paracels and the disputes. It sets out the Chinese position and it sets out the Vietnamese position in 1958. The EEZ is yet to be delimited. China in 1958 listed the islands that it claims, and it claims the 12 nautical miles territorial sea – all of these is in accordance with international law.Unfortunately, public opinion and the international media haven’t focused on that part of it. China’s public statement and actions in the sea – if they are in conformity with what is seen to be international law, is helpful to China. That is a message we give to China as its friend.

On Asean’s role in dealing with the maritime disputes between China and Asean claimant statesMr Shanmugam: Some Asean member states have claims which overlap those of China's.Asean as a whole does not intervene and cannot intervene in those claims. Those are to be dealt between the claimant states and China.What then is Asean's interest? It is in our vital interest that there is no serious physical clash, no rise in tension, and that disputes are sorted out among the claimant states in a peaceful way in accordance with international law, including the UNCLOS.Asean, if it is to be a credible body, must be able to deal with it and say to all the claimant states and China: look, please take an approach that is peaceful and let's try and sort this out.We cannot sort out the territorial claims but we can try and say what should be the process to deal with such claims and until you deal with such claims, how should you behave with each other.This is why Asean has a role in the code of conduct. If Asean keeps quiet and loses credibility, it would not be in China's interest.China is a very important dialogue partner. It is in China's interest to have a strong and vibrant Asean, united and neutral. That can be Asean's role.

On the relationships between the US, China and Japan.Mr Shanmugam: The United States is traditionally the resident power. It is both an Atlantic power and a Pacific power. The United States has very significant economic and strategic interests in Asia. That's undeniable.China is a rising power. History shows that when there is a rising power and a resident power, usually there is war. War would be bad for everyone, including China.So the big question is: what sort of accommodation can be found between China and the US that would be wise and sensible? America must understand and accept that China's rise is inevitable.China will grow economically. It will grow militarily. It will grow in soft power. It will grow in hard power. That is a fact.China’s ability to project power across the sea will also grow. China's stated position is that it does not seek to claim what doesn't belong to it.So the question is: what belongs to China and what doesn't? From Singapore’s perspective, it’s a matter of international law.The relationship between Beijing and Washington is the most critical relationship in the world. The second most important relationship in this region is Beijing and Tokyo. The relationship is complicated and is going to require wisdom in three capitals (Washington, Beijing and Tokyo).China doesn’t want any extra trouble right now because the biggest issues facing China are within China. China is ageing fast. Its development is very impressive but it still has more to do.The Chinese leadership wants to be left in peace in an external harmonious environment in order to focus internally to achieve the Chinese dream - a relatively prosperous society within the next eight years, ten years. It also wants to reduce some of the inequalities and disparity between the different provinces - and this will require a lot of attention and focus.Given all these complications, China does not want an external environment which is troublesome. Nobody expects China or any other country to give up on their territorial claims. But how do you make those claims? How are the potential conflicts dealt with?Can we find a way to move forward while we leave the territorial disputes aside and see how we can take it further?In a speech I made at the American Jewish Community Global Forum in Washington in May this year, I said that if Japan becomes too nervous, there's always a possibility of Japan arming itself even more.Is that in China's interest? Is that in the interest of Southeast Asia? It is better if Japan is not nervous and stays under the US nuclear umbrella and that everything remains stable while there is economic progress.