BEIJING: Singapore is trying to help lower tensions in the disputed South China Sea by proposing a short-term interim solution to avoid accidental miscalculations that can lead to conflict at sea, said Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan on the final day of his visit to China.
China and several ASEAN countries - including Brunei, Vietnam and the Philippines - have territorial claims in the South China Sea. However, as Singapore is not a claimant state, this will allow it to play a neutral role in being a constructive conduit for dialogue among the claimant states, said Dr Balakrishnan.
Singapore has suggested expanding a concept called the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) to the parties involved.
“It is, in a sense, some rules of engagement which will prevent untoward accidents or miscalculations which will lead to tensions and conflict at sea. And we’ve suggested expanding this to cover both naval vessels and coast guards,” said Dr Balakrishnan.
Dr Balakrishnan said that China has indicated that it is an idea worth exploring, but he also pointed out that CUES is not a new idea. It had originated from the Western Pacific Naval Symposium, a series of biennial meetings of the Pacific nations to discuss naval matters.
He added that the question now is whether China and ASEAN can expand the idea and build confidence, even as consultations on a separate Code of Conduct in the South China Sea continue.
“I see us as just being one conduit to lower temperatures and to seek peaceful resolution of differences,” he said. “I don’t think we should overplay our role either because we can’t solve all the problems in the world. But we do our best. We take advantage of the fact that people know us, hopefully people trust us, people rely on us, and we will do our best.”
THIRD GOVERNMENT-TO-GOVERNMENT SINO-SINGAPORE PROJECT
Dr Balakrishnan is on his first visit to China as Foreign Affairs Minister. During his two-day visit, he has held talks with several top Chinese officials, including Vice President Li Yuanchao, State Councillor Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
During his trip, he also gave an update on Sino-Singapore relations. He said it is an excellent and strategic relationship that has moved along with the times, one outcome of which was the decision to have a third government-to-government level project in Chongqing - one which focuses on connectivity. The minister also said that negotiations to upgrade the Singapore-China Free Trade Agreement are underway.
“The key point is not just to settle, but to aim for an ambitious agreement, because we always want the projects that we do between China and Singapore to be pathfinder projects, break new ground, take some risks, make some experiments and test new ideas for the future,” Dr Balakrishnan said.
Expanding on his pathfinder concept, Dr Balakrishnan said Singapore is a harbinger of challenges which China will face, though on a much smaller scale. These include an ageing population and improving society security for healthcare.
Hinting at further collaborations down the road, the minister said there may be some useful lessons from Singapore’s experience which may be modified, adapted and applied in China.