Questions on how S. China Sea tensions may affect S'pore

The ongoing maritime disputes in the South China Sea came under the spotlight yesterday, as several MPs asked how rising temperatures in the waters might affect Singapore and its relationships with the countries involved.

Four out of 17 MPs who spoke during the debate on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' plans for the year raised the subject. Minister Vivian Balakrishnan will give his response when Parliament sits today.

Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC) and Mr Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) asked about the role Singapore could play to facilitate a peaceful resolution of the dispute.

Singapore is in the first year of its three-year term as country coordinator for ASEAN-China relations.

Mr Singh said the role is significant, as developments in the South China Sea saw ASEAN foreign ministers meeting in 2012 fail to agree on a joint communique.

He wanted to know ASEAN and China's response to Singapore's proposal for an expanded Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea that includes coast guard ships to help prevent untoward clashes.

The South China Sea has also become a flashpoint between the United States and China, and Singapore has longstanding ties with both.

Four ASEAN members - Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam - have overlapping territorial claims in those waters with Beijing.

Amid these tensions, ASEAN continues to look towards China as an economic partner, Ms Sun Xueling (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) noted.

Beijing, too, has been "pulling out all stops to try to build trust", she added, citing initiatives like the One Belt, One Road that aim to spur development, and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Ms Sun shared how at a recent meeting, individual ASEAN members spoke of how they could co-operate with China on production capacity and spoke glowingly of Chinese investments in their areas.

She wants to know how Singapore intends to build on this relationship amid testy regional ties.

Geopolitical tensions aside, MPs like Mr Ong Teng Koon (Marsiling- Yew Tee GRC) sought updates on ASEAN integration.

Dr Teo Ho Pin (Bukit Panjang) asked how Singapore could provide consular services to firms that are keen to expand within ASEAN.

Mr Ong said the success of the newly declared ASEAN Economic Community will depend on how well ASEAN countries can co-operate to deal with emerging challenges.

These may be intra-regional, such as transboundary haze, or involve external parties, like in the South China Sea disputes, he said.

"If we play our cards right, the Community will allow Singapore to project our national interests with the voice of the entire grouping, achieving far greater outcomes than we could alone," he said.

"But the flipside is that there may be situations where our sovereignty and interests are challenged by others within the group, and compromises will need to be made."

Associate Professor Muhammad Faishal Ibrahim (Nee Soon GRC) sought an update on Singapore's ties with its immediate neighbours, as well as with Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and the Philippines which are undergoing leadership transitions .

Mr Alex Yam (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC) was concerned about the Trans-Pacific Partnership's future amid the US presidential election.

The agreement was signed in February by 12 countries, including Singapore, but uncertainty swirls over its ratification as both front runners have questioned the trade pact.

MPs also asked how the ministry intends to meet the demand for greater consular support among Singaporeans, who are travelling more frequently and to more obscure places.

This article was first published on April 7, 2016.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.