SINAGPORE - The growing strain over territorial disputes in the South China Sea is just one aspect of ASEAN-China relations, and parties must try not to let it colour the whole relationship, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said.
"There are many other aspects, many of them are very positive," he told Japan media group Nikkei in an interview last Wednesday, ahead of a working trip to Tokyo today and tomorrow.
These include financial assistance, human resource development and trade, said Mr Lee, adding that ASEAN and China are hoping to enhance their free trade agreement.
"So ASEAN-China relations are multi-faceted, and South China Sea is one (facet)," he said. "And we will have to try our best to make sure that it does not colour the whole relationship."
Mr Lee also said ongoing discussions between the 10-member grouping and China over a code of conduct in the South China Sea may take some time to finalise.
"I think that many countries would be very cautious about signing on to a set of guidelines which may constrain (their) freedom of action," he said. "It is natural, and therefore it will take some time to get everybody to agree to a code of conduct."
ASEAN already has a declaration of conduct with China, signed in 2002 to ease tensions in the South China Sea, where some of China's claims overlap with those of ASEAN members including Brunei, the Philippines, Malaysia and Vietnam.
Meanwhile, regional defence ministers meeting in Myanmar for the 8th ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting have also pledged solidarity amid the rising friction in the South China Sea, and called on all parties to adhere to the declaration of conduct.