WASHINGTON - Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan rejected speculation that Asean was caving into China over disputed territory in the South China Sea, telling National Public Radio (NPR) during an interview on Friday (May 5) that it was more important to "have light rather than generate heat" on the issue.
"What we want is a rules-based world order that complies with international law and has access to peaceful ways of resolving differences," he said.
Several Asean countries - including Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei - have overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea especially with China, which has been building civilian and military infrastructure on expanded land features. That has caused alarm in the region.
Dr Balakrishnan was speaking the day after meeting US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson along with other foreign ministers from Asean.
The ministers met with US-Asean Business Council members and spoke at a discussion at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies as well. They were scheduled to meet US National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster later on Friday.
At the meeting with the ministers, Secretary Tillerson noted that the US and Asean were aligned on principles and objectives, and Asean partners could count on the US to assert the rights of all to free air and maritime passage in the South China Sea.
Freedom of Navigation Operations by American warships would continue, the State Department's Deputy Assistant Secretary for Southeast Asia, Mr Patrick Murphy, told reporters afterwards.
Dr Balakrishnan cautioned that "territorial disputes by definition will always be difficult to resolve."
"What Asean is focused on right now is to settle the framework for a Code of Conduct," he said.
This would set rules of engagement as an important first step to building confidence, he said, so that "we can keep the peace, keep trade routes open, keep diplomatic channels open."
Asked about the possibility of China filling a "vacuum" left by America's withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), Dr Balakrishnan said the economic logic for relating with South-east Asia was powerful and "we hope that in some fashion America will continue this journey of building economic ties with us".
The US withdrawal had been disappointing, he said. But Asean as a vibrant market with a young population was building economic bridges across the globe.
"We want a regional, all encompassing, welcoming architecture and America is most welcome to participate," he noted.
"South-east Asia supports half a million American jobs. America has more invested in South-east Asia than it has in India, China and Japan combined. America's prosperity is at stake. This is an area that is replete with opportunities too big to miss."