Asean countries and China yesterday agreed to the early conclusion of a code of conduct (COC) for the South China Sea.
A day after Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said he hopes to see consultation on the maritime accord sewn up in three years, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong agreed that parties should keep to that timeline.
Addressing fellow Asean leaders and Premier Li at the Asean-China Summit yesterday, PM Lee said he was encouraged by the good progress made in the negotiations for the code - which sets out norms of behaviour in the contested waters - that started earlier this year.
Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam all stake overlapping territorial claims on the disputed waterway.
"There will be complex and challenging negotiations. We should aim for the completion of the first reading of the code of conduct in 2019, and to complete it in three years as mentioned by Premier Li Keqiang," PM Lee said.
"In the meantime, all parties should maintain restraint, keep a conducive and stable environment for the COC negotiations to proceed smoothly," he added.
In his opening remarks at the meeting, which also marks the 15th anniversary of Asean-China Strategic Partnership, Mr Li said China is ready to work with the South-east Asian nations to conclude the code, saying it will "contribute to peace and stability in the South China Sea and be conducive to free trade".
KEEPING TO TIMELINE
There will be complex and challenging negotiations. We should aim for the completion of the first reading of the code of conduct in 2019, and to complete it in three years as mentioned by Premier Li Keqiang.
PRIME MINISTER LEE HSIEN LOONG
In taking stock of the Asean-China relationship, PM Lee said the regional grouping and its East Asian neighbour share substantial and mutually beneficial ties, and their economic links have strengthened over the years. China has been Asean's top trading partner for eight consecutive years.
The two sides also completed the first Asean-China maritime exercise last month.
PM Lee made three suggestions to keep the momentum of positive ties going: Continue to demonstrate the strongest commitment to multilateral trade and economic cooperation, continue to engage in dialogue and practical cooperation to enhance peace and stability in the region, and continue to identify new areas of collaboration.
Besides the free trade agreement, fully liberalising the Asean-China Air Transport Agreement is one way of connecting the economies and drawing them closer, as will mobilising private capital and the use of financial institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Asian Development Bank to plug Asean's infrastructure financing gap, said PM Lee.
As for new collaborations, China and Asean have committed to working closer together in technological innovation and digital economy, as well as developing smart cities.
The two sides adopted an Asean-China Strategic Partnership Vision, a document which charts the direction of relations up until 2030.
They agreed to, among others, stand firm against growing protectionist and anti-globalisation sentiment and reaffirmed that international trade and investment are important engines for sustainable economic growth and development.
They also reiterated their commitment to maintaining and promoting peace, security, stability and safety in the South China Sea, including respect for freedom of navigation in and overflight above the waterway, and resolving disputes peacefully without resorting to the threat or use of force - and in keeping with international law.