China has agreed to explore ways of limiting the risks of armed encounters in the disputed South China Sea, Singapore’s foreign minister said Monday after talks in Beijing.
While Singapore does not claim any part of the South China Sea, it is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' (ASEAN) coordinator for China relations. The two countries will work on crafting specific plans in the coming months, Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said, Channel News Asia reported.
“We both reaffirmed the importance of peace and stability and freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea. This is an essential lifeline for China and for all ASEAN countries because so much of our trade and energy flows through this area,” Balakrishnan said, after meeting with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi.
Singapore has been focusing on the formulation of a “code of conduct” in the sea region, which aims to set guidelines for countries involved in disputes arising from overlapping claims and to avoid conflict in what has been described as one of the world’s busiest and richest sea lanes.
China has been accused of fortifying structures in the areas it claims, raising alarm from rival claimants. The Philippines, in particular, has warned that this was allegedly Beijing’s plan ahead of declaring an “air defense identification zone” in the area. On Monday, the Philippines said it reached an agreement for Japan to supply it with military equipment.
Last week, Manila said it was “gravely concerned” by reports that China had deployed surface-to-air missiles to an island it claims, arguing that it went against China’s commitment not to militarize the sea region.
The Philippines said in a statement that the developments further erode “trust and confidence and aggravate the already tense situation in the region.”
China claims the whole of the South China Sea, while ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines, as well as Taiwan, also have claims to parts of the sea, which is believed to have large gas and mineral deposits.
Wang said its position on the dispute remained unchanged, but stressed Beijing was ready to work with ASEAN to implement the code of conduct, Channel News Asia reported.
He said “specific disputes should be settled by the countries directly involved through dialogue and negotiation” as stipulated under the code.
“At the same time, China and ASEAN countries ... will continue to maintain peace, stability and that includes the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea,” Wang said.
On Monday, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario stressed that the country had tried to engage China diplomatically, but previous overtures had fallen on deaf ears.
“We have had countless meetings with China to try to address the issue between the two of us to no avail. We have invited China many times to join us in arbitration as early as 2012, again to no avail,” Albert del Rosario said.
The Philippines lodged a complaint before a U.N.-backed arbitral tribunal, which is due to release its findings soon. China refuses to participate in the hearings.
“As we presume to be responsible states, the Philippines, as well as the international community, are asking China to respect the forthcoming ruling of the Arbitral Tribunal and together advance an international rules-based regime,” Albert del Rosario said.
“If China does not heed our collective call, does it mean that China considers itself above the law?" he added.
Manila contends that China’s claims of historical rights to the sea, including claims to waters in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, are baseless.
It also argued that features used by China as basis to generate its claims “are either rocks or low-tide elevations, which at best can only generate up to 12 nautical miles of maritime entitlements,” according to Manila's filings with the tribunal.
Amid the dispute, ASEAN countries such as the Philippines have formed closer military ties with the United States.