DISPUTES between China and some Asean member countries over territories in the South China Sea do not define relations between Asean and China, said Foreign Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam yesterday.
He also said it was in both their interests to strengthen cooperation, citing in particular the massive trade between them.
"The (territorial) claims are not the totality of Asean-China interactions, simply one part of many," he said.
China, for instance, is Asean's top trading partner, with total trade reaching US$230 billion (S$286 billion) in 2010. At the same time, Asean is China's third largest trading partner, he noted.
"It is clearly in Asean's and China's interests to maintain and strengthen cooperation for mutual benefit," he said in Parliament.
He was replying to questions about the regional grouping's unprecedented failure last month to issue a joint communique after the 45th Asean Ministerial Meeting in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Mr Shanmugam had said then that it inflicted a "severe dent" on Asean's credibility. Asean countries with rival claims to territories in the South China Sea are the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia.
The Philippines and Vietnam had wanted the Phnom Penh communique to make reference to recent tussles with China in the resource-rich area.
But this was blocked by Asean chair Cambodia in a move widely thought to be made on behalf of China, which has been increasing its economic ties with Cambodia.
Yesterday, Mr Shanmugam said it was "simplistic to try and identify any one actor or cause for what happened in Phnom Penh".
A consensus could not be reached because of "the distance between positions taken by Asean members", he said.
While the lack of an accord in Phnom Penh was a setback, this would not divert Asean from its goal of achieving regional integration by 2015.
Subsequent efforts by Indonesia had repaired some of Asean's credibility, he said, referring to an Asean statement on Six-Point Principles on the South China Sea issued the week after Phnom Penh. But more remains to be done, he added.
Mr Shanmugam called on all parties to implement fully the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. Asean and China should also start talks soon on a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, he said.
Mr Shanmugam, in response to a query, said he did not think an open conflict was imminent.
Both sides recognise such a conflict would be against their interests. "All of us depend on a certain amount of peace and regional harmony to prevail," he said.