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Asean 'must stay neutral on South China Sea'

Publication Date : 31-10-2012


The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) has to take a "forward-looking neutral view" of the dispute in the South China Sea, said Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, so it can encourage all parties to come together to resolve the issue.

But he also expressed optimism that they would make progress next year, when Brunei takes over the chairmanship of the 10-member regional grouping.

"They are focused on making outcomes during the year as Asean chairman and less so on the form of the meetings and the events which are part of the Asean process," he said.

Lee made these comments while speaking to the Singapore media yesterday, wrapping up a three-day official visit to Brunei.

The competing territorial claims in the South China Sea have long dogged relations between China and Asean members Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. The issue was so divisive that at the Asean Ministerial Meeting in July, the grouping failed to issue a joint statement for the first time in 45 years.

China has made clear it wants to negotiate on a bilateral basis, but some Asean members prefer to deal with the issue as a bloc.

PM Lee said he had shared Singapore's position with Bruneian leaders that Asean "has to take a position on the South China Sea", as the dispute was taking place on its doorstep. "We have to have a forward-looking neutral view which is balanced, and encourage all the parties to come together and start working on the code of conduct," he said, adding that he believed Brunei was "thinking along the same lines too".

China and Asean have been trying to work on coming up with a code of conduct governing activities in the disputed area, though progress has been slow.

Lee noted that this would be an "incremental process", as informal consultations would have to take place first, followed by formal negotiations.

"You are talking about sovereign states, so this has to be by mutual agreement, and it will take some time," he said. "But I hope that the process will begin when Brunei is in the chair next year."

The PM had begun the day with a morning walk with Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, before attending a briefing on the oil-rich sultanate's energy sector.

Later, he visited the Universiti Brunei Darussalam, where he joined a live video conference between its students and counterparts at the National University of Singapore.

He also met an old friend - Speaker of the Legislative Council Pehin Isa Ibrahim - whom he has known since his first visit to Brunei in 1982.

In his interview with the media, Lee, who returns to Singapore today, spoke about strengthening ties between the two countries in areas such as trade, business, education and tourism.

Describing his trip as a "good visit", he stressed the need to build on a relationship that has lasted more than 50 years.

This was why he had proposed that a group of younger Singapore ministers visit Brunei next year, to get to know their counterparts and strengthen relations between the next generation of ministers and officials.

He said: "We need to understand them better, and I hope they will find it useful to be able to know the Singaporeans more, and then we can talk to each other when we need to work together."


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