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NDR 2016: Singapore must choose its own place to stand on South China Sea issue, says PM Lee

The Republic must have its own principled and consistent stand on the South China Sea issue despite pressure from other countries to side with them, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in his National Day Rally speech on Sunday (Aug 21).

SINGAPORE: The Republic must have its own principled and consistent stand on the South China Sea issue despite pressure from other countries to side with them, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in his National Day Rally speech on Sunday (Aug 21).

He was speaking in reference to how Singapore can secure its place in the world.

China claims the “nine-dash line” in the South China Sea, while four countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam – have overlapping claims with China and each other.

Three years ago, the Philippines launched a case against China under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), after which a Tribunal said China’s claim was incompatible with UNCLOS. China has rejected the Tribunal’s jurisdiction.


Map showing disputed claims in the South China Sea. (Image: AFP / Adrian Leung and Gal Roma.)

Mr Lee laid out Singapore’s interest in and stand on the issue, saying that while the country does not have any claims of its own in the South China Sea, and does not take sides on the specific claims of claimants, Singapore still has a lot at stake in three areas: International law, freedom of navigation and unity in ASEAN.

He said that Singapore must support and strive for a “rules-based international order” and depends on words and treaties. "They mean everything to us."

This was as Singapore, as a small nation, cannot afford to have international relations work on the basis that might is right. “If rules do not matter, then small countries like Singapore have no chance of survival,” Mr Lee said.

He added that the South China Sea is one of the “vital arteries” linking Singapore to the world, thus it was important to Singapore that “disputes in the South China Sea do not affect freedom of navigation or overflight by ships or aircraft”.

A “UNITED AND EFFECTIVE” ASEAN NEEDED

Mr Lee also said that while Singapore’s voices carries limited weight internationally, ASEAN collectively can make itself heard better – but only if it is united.

He noted that ASEAN has found it hard to take a clear common stand on the South China Sea issue as its members have different interests. For example, some like Cambodia and Laos are close to China, while the Philippines and Thailand are treaty allies of the US.

Among ASEAN, some are also claimant states on the South China Sea.

“If ASEAN cannot deal with a major issue like this on its doorstep, directly affecting its members, in the long run, nobody will take ASEAN seriously,” said Mr Lee, adding that this is bad for Singapore and every ASEAN member.

With Singapore also the country coordinator for ASEAN-China dialogue relations until August 2018, Mr Lee said Singapore was doing its best to “be an honest broker, dealing straight with all parties”, despite each party wanting Singapore to side more with it.

US, CHINA AMONG MOST IMPORTANT FRIENDS

Mr Lee said that while Singapore wants good relations with other countries, if at all possible, it must be prepared for ups and downs from time to time. He cited past issues, such as when Singapore caned US teenager Michael Fay for vandalism in 1994, as well as occasions when China felt Singapore did not sufficiently defer to their interests.

The Prime Minister called his recent official visit to the US a “significant gesture” which reflects Singapore’s warm and deep friendship with America.


President Barack Obama meets with Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on Aug 2, 2016. (Photo: AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

“My visit was also a signal that the US values its friends and partners, and appreciates Singapore’s support for the role that America has played in the Asia-Pacific for more than 70 years since the war,” he said.

“Singapore hopes the US will keep on doing this, even as China’s influence grows.”

He added that Singapore is good friends with China, and that Singapore is happy to see China grow strong and influential in a “constructive and peaceful way”.

And while Singapore is friends with both the US and China, he said that it was easier to keep being so if both countries are on good terms with each other.

He noted that both countries do aim for good relations with each other, and both believe the Pacific is “vast enough” to accommodate both powers.

“President Xi Jinping said recently America and China should ‘cultivate common circles of friends’,” PM Lee said. “That is precisely what Singapore is trying to be”, among both America's and China's circle of friends.

SINGAPORE DECIDES BASED ON ITS OWN OVERALL INTERESTS

PM Lee said that Singapore has a reputation to protect, with its own independent, carefully thought-out stand.

“The Government has to take a national point of view, decide what's in Singapore’s overall interests,” Mr Lee said.

“We cooperate with other countries, but we make our own calculations,” he added. “That's what makes us credible, reliable, valuable to others”, including ASEAN partners, the US and China.

“It has taken us a long time to build up this reputation, and we have to be very careful to maintain it.”

RELATIONSHIP WITH CHINA “MUCH BROADER THAN THE SOUTH CHINA SEA"

Singapore's friendship with China has lasted for decades and is "much broader than the South China Sea", said Mr Lee.

Mr Lee also said that the relationship between Singapore and China has lasted for decades, citing major Government-to-Government projects done over the years, such as Suzhou Industrial Park, Tianjin Eco-city and the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative.


A bridge inside the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city Development. (Photo: Jeremy Koh/CNA)

He added that Singapore is exploring opportunities in many different provinces and cities, and is also working with China on their “One Belt, One Road” strategy as well as participating in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

“We will have many more opportunities to strengthen our friendship and cooperation with each other,” Mr Lee said. "That's how we do business."