Leaders call for restraint in South China Sea

Leaders attending the East Asia Summit (EAS) yesterday stressed the need for all countries to handle territorial disputes in the South China Sea in a way that does not raise temperatures in the region.

They included Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who said Singapore - as the country coordinator for ASEAN-China relations - urged all parties to abide by the principles of peaceful resolution of disputes and the primacy of international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

He also called on all parties to "exercise maximum restraint, refrain from provocative actions or the use of force, and commit to accident prevention measures and the non-militarisation of land features in the South China Sea".

Beijing's recent reclamation work near the Spratly Islands, parts of which are also claimed by four ASEAN countries - Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam - and its construction of a runway on one of the artificial islands, saw several leaders express concern that such work would change the status quo.

But on a visit to the United States in September, Chinese President Xi Jinping made a commitment not to pursue militarisation of land features in the South China Sea.

And during his state visit to Singapore earlier this month, he said China would respect and uphold freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea.

Yesterday, Mr Lee told the EAS gathering that he welcomed these two statements.

"These are all ideals which all participants should subscribe to. Through discussion and engagement, we should be able to work them out in order that they can translate into practical consequences on the ground," he said.

Regional peace and stability depend on how such potential flashpoints are managed, he added.

Mr Lee said that ASEAN's and China's agreement to start discussions on the structure and elements of a Code of Conduct and Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea for naval assets is a positive step to build trust and confidence.

In separate remarks, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak told reporters last night that there was consensus among EAS members that the South China Sea had to be handled in a way that does not raise tensions in the region.

"All countries agreed that there should not be any interference on freedom of navigation and overflight. China has also come out categorically in the meeting to say that it is committed to safety and freedom of navigation and overflight," he said.

EAS leaders also agreed to enhance maritime co-operation. China too highlighted high-level exchanges in this area, including visits by senior naval officials and port calls. China is also working to set up a China-ASEAN Marine Cooperation Centre where countries can work on issues such as maritime environment protection.

In his remarks to EAS leaders, Mr Lee said members could contribute to regional growth and stability through closer economic integration. They also had to co-operate to tackle challenges like terrorism, cyber security and climate change.

Mr Lee suggested working on strengthening the EAS itself.

The EAS was set up 10 years ago in Kuala Lumpur as a platform for ASEAN and key partners to discuss strategic issues, in a bid to strengthen the regional architecture.

Mr Lee said a decade on, the EAS has become "an integral part" of an ASEAN-led framework for regional co-operation. Its position could be consolidated and it could also see more substantive outcomes.

This article was first published on Nov 23, 2015.
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