WASHINGTON - Maintaining full freedom of navigation for everyone in the South China Sea is crucial not just for claimant states but also for the international community at large, given the volume of global trade that flows through the waters, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Friday (May 13).
The contested waters featured prominently during the two-day summit of United States and Asean leaders in Washington, both explicitly in speeches by the leaders and implicitly, in maritime cooperation programmes rolled out by the US.
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam claim parts of the sea which overlap with China's claims. Beijing claims up to 90 per cent of the disputed waters based on a historical nine-dash line, but an international arbitral tribunal ruled in 2016 that China had no legal basis to claim historic rights to the sea's resources.
The US has criticised China for contravening international law and intimidating and coercing the South-east Asian claimants, which Beijing denies.
Speaking during a plenary session with Asean leaders and US President Joe Biden, PM Lee said that Singapore supports the conclusion of a Code of Conduct (COC) for the South China Sea.
"Singapore supports the conclusion of a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea, one that is in accordance with universally recognised principles of international law, including the 1982 Unclos (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea), and one that safeguards the rights and interests of all parties," he said.
Earlier, during a working lunch hosted by US Vice-President Kamala Harris, PM Lee also lauded the progress in maritime cooperation between the regional bloc and the US.
More broadly, he also called on the US to work with China to address tensions in the relationship and build mutual trust.
"The trajectory of our cooperation between Asean and the US, and more broadly, the pace of global economic recovery and how countries deal with geopolitical developments, will depend crucially on how US-China relations evolve," he said.
Asean countries' varying views on Ukraine
The US and Asean also addressed the war in Ukraine in their joint statement released after the summit, reaffirming their respect for sovereignty, political independence and territorial integrity.
They also called again for compliance with the UN Charter and international law, which bans the use of force against the territorial integrity of another state, except in the case of self-defence.
Missing, however, was any mention of Russia and its role in invading Ukraine. The US has sought to galvanise international condemnation and sanctions against Russia, but Asean countries have mostly been more circumspect in their disapproval of Moscow or ambivalent.
PM Lee told Singapore reporters that Asean as a whole has taken a stand, but that the statement was not as strong as it could be because different Asean countries have different views.
Elaborating on the spectrum of views, he pointed to how Vietnam and Laos abstained from the vote in the United Nations General Assembly condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine in March. The rest of Asean's members supported the resolution.
"If you look at the national statements and the national actions, I think Singapore's is the most forthright statement, which we issued. We also had some targeted sanctions on Russia," said PM Lee.
Cambodia, too, had a very strong statement and clear stance, he said.
"Prime Minister Hun Sen was quite unambiguous and emphatic in his explanation of his position that there must be absolute rules against violating territorial integrity and sovereignty and independence of other countries. Otherwise, where do small countries stand?"
While the other countries will stand up for that principle, they also have more significant relations with Russia which they want to preserve, he said.
"And so, they have nuanced their responses. Some of them have talked about the conflict in Ukraine without mentioning who the aggressor is. They think it may be helpful. Well, they have taken that position but we have each made our stand clear," said PM Lee.
In their joint statement, the US and Asean also vowed to address climate change, including by facilitating the development of clean and renewable energy and deploying low-carbon energy technologies.
PM Lee said during Friday’s afternoon summit session with Mr Biden that there is significant potential for Asean and the US to grow its regional partnership in the area of energy.
There are market opportunities for American companies in Asean, including exporting low-carbon energy solutions or investing in infrastructure such as solar, wind and hydrogen, he added.
He noted that Singapore and the US last August jointly announced the US-Singapore Climate Partnership, which goes hand in hand with other efforts to more speedily deploy low-carbon energy technologies in Asean.
“As country coordinator for Asean-US energy cooperation, Singapore is happy to work with the US and fellow Asean members to facilitate the region’s energy transition,” PM Lee wrote later on Facebook.