SINGAPORE - Singapore hopes to promote relations between Asean and China, including cooling down tensions in the South China Sea, when it becomes the coordinator of ties between the grouping and its giant neighbour, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said.
Singapore takes over as coordinator from Thailand next month at a time when tensions in the South China Sea have escalated over competing territorial claims in the resource-rich waters that China has with four Asean states and Taiwan.
This is especially as China has raised concerns in the region with its reclamation of several reefs into islands, at least one of which is large enough to accommodate a military airstrip. Beijing, for its part, has been incensed by Manila's taking it to the United Nations arbitration court over its claims.
"We hope to try and find common ground among members of Asean and facilitate the discussion between Asean and China" on the disputes, Mr Lee said at a lunchtime dialogue on Tuesday. "Maybe we cannot solve the issues immediately. However, at least we can cool down the tensions and we can avoid the escalation of tension, that's our hope," he added.
Singapore hopes to align the different interests within Asean for when it faces the world's second-largest economy, he also said.
"We also hope to help Asean hammer out more cooperative projects with China," Mr Lee added.
These projects need not all be economic ones, but could include cooperation in human resource development and education, he said on the final day of the two-day FutureChina Global Forum, of which The Straits Times is a media partner.
At a wide-ranging dialogue, spanning issues such as immigration, entrepreneurship, terrorism and climate change, Mr Lee also spoke about the future of Singapore-China ties as the two nations celebrate 25 years of diplomatic relations.
While noting that ties between the two sides have deepened and widened in content - including in economic ties, academic exchanges, and political and regional cooperation - he said both sides had seen huge changes through the years.
While in the past, Singapore in the role as forerunner could help China find its path forward, such as through the first bilateral project, the Suzhou Industrial Park, things had changed. "China is now very open and its contacts with several other countries are very developed and smooth," he noted.
What Singapore can do now is through its own search for ways to resolve its problems, be a point of reference for the Chinese, so that some cities or regions could in accordance with their own conditions make use of some of the ideas that the Singapore experience presents. "If we can do this, I'll be satisfied," he said.
Mr Lee was also asked about external forces that could negatively impact Singapore, to which he said the key one was Sino-US ties.
"It is the most important bilateral relationship in the world and if it is stable and both countries are cooperating with one another, it makes it very easy for small countries like Singapore to be friends with both. If they have problems, if they are at odds with one another, well then, many countries will be forced to choose sides and will feel very uncomfortable having to do so."
Another is stability and cooperation within South-east Asia. While Asean is set to declare a closer-knit community by the end of the year, each member state has its own internal preoccupations. Singapore is watching developments in its neighbours closely because "we have such intimate relations with them that if they get sick, we will fall sick".
A third worrying force is extremist terrorism, with many from the region having gone to the Middle East to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria militant group.
"One day some of them may come home - some of them have already come home - and they will bring the virus back and cause a lot of trouble in our societies," he said.
As a multiracial society, this was a "very dangerous" development which Singapore was watching very carefully, Mr Lee added.