Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen yesterday urged ASEAN and China to "expeditiously conclude" a pact aimed at diffusing simmering tensions in the South China Sea.
Dr Ng said China and other states claiming territory in the sea should sign a binding agreement that forbids the first use of force in potential conflicts.
He said this would reduce miscalculations at sea and allow all sides to settle disputes peacefully, based on internationally accepted norms and legal frameworks.
Dr Ng was speaking to 23 navy chiefs and vice-chiefs from around the world at the opening of the 10th International Maritime Defence Exhibition and Conference (Imdex) Asia at Changi Exhibition Centre.
The event is not open to the public.
China and the United States have been sparring over Beijing's land reclamation efforts at seven sites in the disputed Spratly Island group since March last year. China has constructed a 3,000m runway and airborne early warning radars on Fiery Cross Reef.
These activities have stoked concern among ASEAN leaders over their impact on freedom of navigation and airspace.
China and Taiwan, along with four ASEAN nations - Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines and Brunei - all have competing claims over parts of the South China Sea.
As a non-claimant state, Dr Ng said Singapore takes no sides in the maritime disputes but is concerned that the risks of incidents, and even conflicts, have gone up.
Dr Ng said such territorial disputes are among the maritime challenges that can be "potentially disruptive" to trade routes in this part of the world, affecting Singapore and the global economy.
Other challenges include the rising threat of maritime terrorism, as well as piracy and sea robberies.
Having successfully curbed piracy in the Strait of Malacca, Dr Ng said states in the region will "now need to extend our efforts to new hot spots in the South China Sea".
US Vice-Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Michelle Howard, also addressed the South China Sea territorial spat, saying it is "now time for China to talk about what the reclamation of land means".
Adm Howard, speaking to reporters at the Imdex show, said: "It is a couple of thousands of acres... No one said they are putting a resort out there. Someone needs to explain what they are putting out there."
She added that when US Navy warship USS Fort Worth met a Chinese counterpart recently in the South China Sea, both sides practised the drill for unplanned encounters, known as Cues.
Adm Howard, however, did not directly address a recent report that said US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter is looking to make US ships and planes expand patrols to the disputed areas, including within 12 nautical miles of the disputed islands.
She said: "We manoeuvre through the high seas and in the air routinely... When we are ready, when someone asks us to do that and directs us to do that, we will do it."
This article was first published on May 20, 2015.
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