VIENTIANE: As country coordinator of ASEAN-China relations, Singapore will focus on the formulation of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, said Foreign Affairs Minister Dr Vivian Balakrishnan on Saturday (Feb 27).
Speaking to the media in an interview after the ASEAN Foreign Ministers' retreat in Vientiane, Laos, Dr Balakrishnan said that ASEAN foreign ministers had reaffirmed the importance of peace and stability in the disputed waters, and called for self-restraint in the conduct of activities.
The retreat is the first ministerial-level meeting since the establishment of the ASEAN community on Dec 31 last year, and the ongoing developments in the South China Sea were among the issues discussed.
Laos Foreign Minister Thongloun Sisoulith said: "The ministers remained seriously concerned over recent and ongoing developments and took note of the concerns expressed by some ministers on the land reclamations and escalation of activities in the area, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions and may undermine peace, security and stability in the region."
Dr Balakrishnan also had a bilateral meeting with Laos Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister Thongloun Sisoulith on the sidelines of the retreat. (Photo: Hetty Musfirah Abdul Khamid)
The foreign ministers are urging for the establishment of the Code of Conduct that lays down rules of engagement in the South China Sea to be expedited. This issue will addressed during his upcoming introductory visit to China, said Dr Balakrishnan.
"Singapore’s not a claimant state. Nevertheless, because we are a small country, we have to firmly adhere with the concept of a rules-based world order. In other words, we cannot have a world where might is right," he said.
"So we and in fact, all the ASEAN countries, have been encouraging strict adherence to international law for a peaceful resolution of conflicts or differences with full respect for legal and diplomatic processes," Dr Balakrishnan added.
"One area that we are going to focus very much on is on the formulation of the Code of Conduct. All these are steps which will hopefully de-escalate tension and prevent any accidents or inadvertent escalation of tensions and incidents at sea. So I am afraid that we have our work cut out for us," he said.
ASEAN COMMUNITY VISION 2025, TRANSBOUNDARY ISSUES DISCUSSED
The foreign ministers also looked at ways to implement the ASEAN Community Vision 2025, which includes realising a highly integrated regional economy.
Dr Balakrishnan said with the slowdown in China and the uncertainty in the global economy, it is imperative for ASEAN to improve trade and investments as alternative sources of growth.
Other transboundary issues such as the haze, terrorism, irregular migration and cybercrime were also raised at the retreat.
Dr Balakrishnan said Singapore has offered to help promote the development of skills and standards of cybersecurity across ASEAN.
"We will convene a cybersecurity conference in October and we hope to see full participation by our ASEAN partners. Basically, we see this as an opportunity to share best practices, to enhance digital literacy and for us to be aware that this is another transboundary issue. And again, the best way is to work together and to share information and to collaborate," he said.
During the retreat, Laos also introduced its priorities as Chair of ASEAN this year. Laos Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister Thongloun Sisoulith said these include narrowing the development gap, enhancing connectivity and strengthening efforts to preserve ASEAN's cultural heritage.