Singapore's Ambassador-at-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Professor Tommy Koh, yesterday referred to a trust deficit between China and some countries in the region.
The theme of the Singapore Regional Business Forum yesterday was the "21st Century Maritime Silk Road," but the maritime disputes in the South China Sea loomed large in the background.
Prof Koh was responding to comments by Mr Li Zhaoxing, China's foreign minister from 2003 to 2007, in his keynote address.
Mr Li said that some of his foreign friends had asked if the maritime disputes in the South China would "become a roadblock for the building of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road".
Mr Li said he responded to these queries with a saying from his home town, Shandong - "Cast the net against the waves, and sail the boat against the wind". Wind and waves are not to be feared, he added, as long as one knew "where the wind was blowing, and steered the boat in its direction".
"China's policy for the South China Sea is all about safeguarding its own legitimate rights and interests and upholding regional peace and stability. China has no geostrategic intention of seeking the so-called sphere of influence."
The One Belt, One Road initiative proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013 aims to spur development along a continental route and a maritime route. Singapore sits on the sea route dubbed the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road which links China with South-east Asia.
But China has overlapping claims in the South China Sea with South-east Asian nations including the Philippines and Vietnam.
Prof Koh noted Mr Li's emphasis on the inclusiveness of the Belt and Road initiative, and his highlighting of shared values such as mutual benefit and inclusiveness.
However, he said between China and some countries in South-east Asia, there was a need to "build mutual trust and confidence".
"At the moment, there's a deficit of trust between China and some countries in the region. We need to overcome that deficit of trust and build more mutual trust and confidence," said Prof Koh.
"There will be no Maritime Silk Road, if there were no navigation, shipping, trade and, central to this, freedom of navigation. The core value we must all uphold is freedom of navigation, and freedom of navigation in accordance with international laws, because there are laws governing shipping and navigation," he added.
"A central value of the 21st century Maritime Silk Road must be respect for cultural diversity."
Lee Xin En