SINGAPORE: Negotiations on an effective code of conduct for the South China Sea will not be easy, and is expected to take some time, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Saturday (Apr 28).
During a press conference at the end of the 32nd ASEAN Summit, Mr Lee gave an update on negotiations on the multilateral territorial disputes in the South China Sea, noting that the ASEAN countries had a "useful exchange of views”.
In a statement released on Friday (Apr 27), leaders had agreed to work actively towards the conclusion of an effective Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.
There are overlapping territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.
Mr Lee said there has been progress made on the implementation of practical measures under the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. He added that they are also looking forward to the conclusion of an effective Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.
In February, ASEAN foreign ministers agreed to work towards the conclusion of an effective code of conduct in the South China Sea based on a “mutually-agreed timeline”.
When asked by reporters for an update on the negotiations, Mr Lee stressed that negotiations only started in March, and it is "early days yet". He expects it to take “some time” as it will "not be easy to do”.
“The key difficulty is, whether it’s binding or legally binding, once you have a document like that you have to define what exactly you are disagreeing about, which are the areas to which it applies, and the conduct to which it applies,” he said.
“In the South China Sea, what is in disagreement is itself not in agreement,” he added. “That is the nature of the dispute. Because what is mine is indisputably mine, what is yours is being disputed.”
“If it’s going to be binding or legally binding, how are disagreements or issues going to be arbitrated ... what jurisdiction do we subject ourselves to?”
Mr Lee stressed that these are all “very difficult issues” that will take a long time even to crystallise.
“But it’s better that we spend our time talking about the code of conduct constructively and trying to keep the temperature down, than if you don’t try, and just take unilateral measures which lead to isolation and unpredictable consequences,” he said.
A “PROMISING AND PRODUCTIVE FIRST LAP” COMPLETED
Mr Lee said he is pleased that a "promising and productive" first lap has been completed for Singapore’s ASEAN chairmanship. When asked about the grouping’s agenda over the course of the next year, he pointed out that the agenda, as set out in the statement released on Friday, is long, and "not everything will be done this year".
For example, leaders have reaffirmed the need to build closer cooperation and coordination with each other on cybersecurity policy development and capacity building initiatives. Cybersecurity cooperation, he said, could start this year, but is a project for a "continuing period of time".
He added that a model ASEAN extradition treaty is done and needs only to be formalised. Negotiations for an actual ASEAN extradition treaty can also begin, he said.
“I think that can be done, and that should not take very long, because a model is already there,” he said. “It’s just a matter of tweaking and making sure you make it into a complete document.”
Nonetheless, he said that by November, he hopes to have some progress to review. The 33rd ASEAN Summit is slated to be held in November this year.
He added that he was looking forward to having a productive exchange with ASEAN partner nations.
"ASEAN is in a position where we want to develop more, further our relations with the emerging economies, with China and India,” he said. “At the same time, we want to maintain and strengthen our ties with the established economies, typically the United States."
"So in November ... that’s when the pieces come together, and I look forward to another productive meeting."
A Chairman’s statement was also issued at the close of the summit, which reaffirmed the importance of maintaining ASEAN centrality and unity in community-building efforts and engagement of external partners.