Security, trade top agenda in Biden's S'pore trip

US Vice-President Joe Biden's wife Dr Jill Biden arrive in Singapore at Paya Lebar Airbase on July 25, 2013. -- PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

SINGAPORE (AFP) - Maritime disputes and trade ties with Asia are likely to top the agenda as United States (US) Vice-President Joe Biden begins a visit to Singapore on Friday, officials and analysts said.

Mr Biden, who arrived in the city-state late on Thursday, is scheduled to meet Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his father, influential elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew.

President Barack Obama's number two will also meet Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is visiting Singapore on the same day as part of a tour of South-east Asia.

On Saturday, Mr Biden will visit a facility of US aerospace giant Pratt & Whitney, and tour the US Navy's littoral combat ship USS Freedom, which has been deployed to Singapore and the surrounding region for the next eight months to give teeth to Washington's strategic "pivot" towards Asia.

The USS Freedom, designed to fight close to the shore, arrived in April and will participate in naval exercises as well as visit other ports.

Mr Biden and his wife Jill on Saturday will also become the latest high-profile visitors to be bestowed a unique Singapore honour - having an orchid named after them.

A senior US administration official said in Washington ahead of the visit that Mr Biden is expected to use his meetings in Singapore to discuss efforts to manage overlapping maritime claims in the South China Sea, a potential flashpoint for regional conflict.

China says it owns virtually all of the sea and has increasingly taken steps to enforce its claims, sparking protests from rival claimants the Philippines and Vietnam which accuse Beijing of hegemonic ambitions.

Brunei and Malaysia, as well as Taiwan, also claim parts of the sea.

Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam are members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), which has been urging China to negotiate a legally binding code of conduct aimed at preventing conflict in those waters.

Beijing, however, has been reluctant to discuss such a code with the 10-nation regional bloc, saying it prefers to deal with individual Asean claimants.

Mr Biden, in a speech at George Washington University on July 18 ahead of his Asia trip, stressed the importance of a code of conduct in the South China Sea.

"With regard to maritime disputes, it's critical that all nations have a clear understanding of what constitutes acceptable international behaviour," Mr Biden said.

"That means no intimidation, no coercion, no aggression, and a commitment from all parties to reduce the risk of mistake and miscalculation," he said, adding that "setting clear rules is the first step to managing these disputes".

"The prospects where they're so close - cheek-to-jowl - for mistakes are real. So it's in everyone's interest that there be freedom of navigation, unimpeded lawful commerce, respect for international laws and norms, and peaceful resolution of territorial disputes."

Mr Euan Graham, an analyst with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said economics will be on Mr Biden's agenda as much as security.

Washington is seeking "to flesh out the economic leg" of its strategic re-balance through the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free-trade agreement, in addition to other initiatives to deepen ties with Asean, Graham told Agence France-Presse.

Led by the US, the TPP talks currently involve 12 countries - Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the US and Vietnam.

Mr Biden has said the US aims for the completion of a TPP deal this year, which would create one of the world's biggest free trade zones.

Some analysts say the free-trade agreement is part of Washington's efforts to contain China, which has not been invited to join the TPP.

China is part of talks for a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a 16-nation free-trade bloc in Asia that excludes the US.

Mr Biden, who arrived in Singapore late Thursday from an earlier visit to India, leaves for Hawaii on Saturday.

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