SINGAPORE - Keeping to the letter and spirit of what has already been agreed among China and South-east Asian countries will itself go some way in defusing the swirling tensions in the South China Sea, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said.
Even as the region awaits a positive signal from Beijing to progress towards signing a binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, Dr Ng said they can resolve disputes by implementing guidelines in the 2002 Declaration of Conduct (DOC).
The pact, which was signed by China and ASEAN members, states that they should refrain from activities that would complicate or escalate disputes.
Describing the DOC as a "substantive document", Dr Ng said: "It is not just motherhood statements. There are discrete descriptions which conscribe behaviour, which infuse it with the right spirit. I think if all signatories adhere to both the spirit and the letter of the DOC, tensions can be defused," said Dr Ng, responding to a question at the Shangri-La Dialogue yesterday organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
His comments come amid simmering tensions in the fiercely contested waters, of which Beijing claims about four-fifths under a so-called nine-dash line drawn on a 1940s map.
The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping sovereignty claims. China has spooked its regional neighbours by aggressively reclaiming land, reportedly putting weapons on a reclaimed reef and warning ships and planes from other countries away from the area.
Reiterating that Singapore is not a claimant state and does not take sides, Dr Ng said in a speech that the Republic, however, is concerned that uncertainties in the international agreements or disputes over the claims have created instability.
"Indeed, a deficit of trust now exists and can grow," said Dr Ng, calling on countries to clarify the practices, if not the principles of law, that maintain regional stability and restore confidence and trust.
The Defence Minister also urged China and ASEAN to follow through with their earlier commitment to the early conclusion of the Code of Conduct.
Dr Ng said it is not enough to just have a rules-based system to establish stability in the region, but the rules have to be "infused with the correct spirit".
It is also vital to have political commitment to build mutual confidence and trust in that security framework.
He said there is, and will be, pressure for existing rules that govern international order to be adjusted to accommodate rising powers in the Asia-Pacific.
And as new powers emerge, it would be unrealistic to assume that current rules and existing institutions that promote them would remain at status quo.
"But even as the hierarchy of power dynamics alters across regions and between individual states, we have to ensure that the security architecture remains inclusive and operates on rules and norms that have the consensus of the international community at large."
Peking University international relations expert Jia Qingguo told The Straits Times that China's sovereignty claims, being based on history, may not work in its favour.
"China has come in late in the game in which other claimants have gone in earlier. It knows it will not be beneficial for it to use the current rule of law, which is determined by the Western-led world, to decide on its claims," he said, explaining Beijing's strategy on its claim.
This article was first published on June 1, 2015.
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