Channel NewsAsia

ASEAN must be neutral in South China Sea row: PM Lee

ASEAN must play a constructive role in managing problems in the South China Sea. That also means not taking sides with the countries making various territorial and maritime claims, said Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Sunday.

NAY PYI TAW, Myanmar: The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) must play a constructive role in managing problems in the South China Sea, said Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Sunday.

And that also means not taking sides with the countries making various territorial and maritime claims.

Speaking at the 24th ASEAN Summit in Myanmar, Mr Lee echoed the sentiments of foreign ministers that ASEAN should have a common position on the issue.

He said incidents, like collisions between Vietnamese and Chinese vessels in the South China Sea within the past week, could easily spiral out of control and trigger unintended consequences.

PM Lee said: "ASEAN's view has been that, whereas ASEAN doesn't take a position on the individual, on the merits of the claims, ASEAN does have a view on the overall issue of the South China Sea, because it is happening on our doorstep and we must have a view, because the security, stability of the region depends on what happens in the South China Sea and we cannot, not take a view as ASEAN."

He also stressed the urgency of coming up with an early conclusion to a South China Sea Code of Conduct and urged leaders to give strong political support to the process.

Mr Lee said a united and cohesive ASEAN is of vital interest for every member of the regional bloc.

A divided ASEAN, he said, undermines the group's credibility and relevance to the world.

Mr Lee said ASEAN must also work together to tackle transboundary haze pollution arising from fires due to the burning of land.

He urged ASEAN member states to operationalise a Haze Monitoring System for the region quickly.

Mr Lee said Singapore looked forward to full ratification of the ASEAN Agreement on Trans-Boundary Haze Pollution soon.

He said: "The mechanism has been set up, with the software, the system is there. What we need is to be able to get the maps and the... land title information from the countries where the burning is a problem, so that we can actually use this system. And that depends on cooperation from the countries involved, including Indonesia and Malaysia. So the ball is in their court now."

On ASEAN's goal to be a single market by 2015, Mr Lee said political will is needed so that necessary reforms can be made to liberalise the region's economies.  

He said the grouping has made encouraging progress towards an ASEAN Economic Community.

He said more than 70 per cent of the targets have been achieved, and urged officials to redouble their efforts so that the outstanding issues can be resolved.

Mr Lee acknowledged that remaining issues to be agreed upon -- such as trade in services and eliminating non-tariff barriers -- are difficult and sensitive.

These, however, offered the most benefits to people and businesses.

As such, ASEAN leaders must find the political will to tackle these issues and make the necessary reforms to further liberalise their economies.

Mr Lee also said there is a need to promote awareness among businesses -- especially small and medium enterprises (SMEs) -- about the ASEAN Economic Community, so they can take full advantage of these programmes.

One way of creating awareness among businessmen would be to fully implement an ASEAN open skies agreement before 2015.

PM Lee also met Myanmar President Thein Sein and expressed hope that the country can consider issuing licences to Singapore banks as it develops its financial sector.

He congratulated President Thein Sein on Myanmar's successful hosting of its first ASEAN Summit.

The summit is also Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's last, as he steps down as the leader of his country.

Mr Lee thanked the outgoing President, saying he has led Indonesia ably, growing its economy and enhancing its contributions to the world. 

Mr Lee said ASEAN has benefited from a stable and growing Indonesia. 

Tweet Photos, Videos and Update on this Story to  #cna