‘No specific consensus’ on South China Sea dispute at ASEAN Summit: Shanmugam


SINGAPORE: Seeing ASEAN-China relations through the prism of the South China Sea dispute is “getting it completely wrong”, said Foreign Affairs Minister and Law Minister K Shanmugam on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit in Kuala Lumpur on Sunday (Apr 26).

Claimant states with ASEAN are pushing for a strong declaration by the 10-member grouping to demand that China stops all reclamation works in the area, but Mr Shanmugam said there was no “specific consensus” on the issue.

Separately, ASEAN is also looking at streamlining its processes and working towards having just one Leaders Summit instead of the twice yearly meetings.

The South China Sea dispute continues to plague ASEAN discussions even before the leaders’ arrival. There was no consensus on getting all 10-member states to declare that China immediately stops reclamation work in the area.

Malaysia, Brunei, Vietnam and the Philippines are among the claimant states within ASEAN, over the mineral-rich seas. ASEAN, together with China, are working towards a Code of Conduct on the South China Sea to mitigate conflicts but progress has been slow.

Said Mr Shanmugam: “It requires the parties, China and ASEAN countries, to be willing to and able to negotiate to achieve an outcome. It is not an easy process because it requires all sides to go and say okay, what is it they are willing to do and what is it they are not willing to do.

“Identify dos and don’ts and there are competing interests. One can understand it takes time. We never thought, I never said, and others, that it’s going to be done quickly, but we certainly think it can be done a little bit faster.”

Asked if China should cease reclamation works in the area, Mr Shanmugam said: “Unless and until you go and determine sovereignty, you can’t answer questions like that.”


He added that until sovereignty is determined, the Code of Conduct is needed.

“There are a number of predicate questions. If the island belongs to you then you are entitled to reclaim – so you can’t answer the question, either it should stop, before deciding whether it belongs to you.

“Each of the claimant states have said the island indubitably belongs to them. So how do you answer this question? And then they are disputed. But then some countries say, ‘Well the dispute notwithstanding, this is mine.’ So unless and until you go and determine sovereignty, you can’t answer questions like that.”

“Which is why it is more profitable in our view to look at, in terms of the Code of Conduct, to see what countries can or cannot do and try and agree on something,” said Mr Shanmugam.

But framing ASEAN-China relations against the backdrop of the South China Sea dispute is not helpful, said Mr Shanmugam.

“If you start looking at ASEAN-China relations through the prism of South China Sea, you are getting it wrong completely. That may be a sexy way of looking at it. That may make newspaper headlines but that certainly isn’t the facts on the ground.

“The facts on the ground are the very substantial economic, security, political relationship between China and every country in ASEAN and ASEAN as a whole. South China Sea forms part of it and we will not be doing our duty for our country and our people if we forget that.”

Mr Shanmugam added: “So we have to look at it in perspective. Singapore is the largest investor in China. China is number one or number two in terms of trade and investment with almost every country in ASEAN. It has got very substantial infrastructure investment as well as other sorts of commercial investments – trade, cross flow, flow of people, integration into the economies of Southeast Asia.

“We have a dispute, in terms of some of the claimant states have a territorial dispute with China. They also have territorial dispute inter-state. Those have to be seen in perspective. The key is not to allow that to interfere with the rest of the relationship.”

Leaders started to arrive in Kuala Lumpur for the Summit on Sunday, which officially opens on Monday.


Ahead of the Leaders’ meeting, Mr Shanmugam said Singapore has proposed strengthening the ASEAN Secretariat. Related to that is the suggestion to cut back on the twice yearly Leaders meeting, to just one – with the option of having two meetings, if the Leaders feel there is a need.

Under the ASEAN Charter, leaders have to meet twice a year. The meetings are currently held in April and November. The 10-member grouping has agreed to the suggestion.

As Chair of ASEAN in 2016, Laos has agreed to merge the two meetings together, back-to back. Mr Shanmugam said this will be an interim arrangement till a permanent solution is reached, as there are different views as to whether the ASEAN Charter needs to be amended to make way for the change.

Said Mr Shanmugam: “We have more than 1,000 meetings in ASEAN, many of them are sectoral – Education, labour, law and so on but we do need to see in the context of modern technology, what can be cut down? And also for the leaders, the idea should be – if they do need to meet twice, they certainly should meet twice but otherwise if they think there is no need, it can be once.”

On the sidelines of the Summit, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong met Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. Both men reaffirmed the strong ties between both sides and updated each other on current domestic developments.

The 26th ASEAN Summit opens in Kuala Lumpur on Monday. But Malaysia is doing things a little different – having the meeting in both the capital and the resort island of Langkawi.

Leaders will adjourn to Langkawi on Monday evening for their retreat session where they will take stock of the ASEAN Community blueprint as well as discuss the way forward for ASEAN Post-2015.