MFA Press Release: Transcript of Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan’s reply to the Parliamentary Question and Supplementary Question, 11 July 2016



Mr Dennis Tan Lip Fong: To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs what are the Ministry's plans to reinforce a common ASEAN position on the South China Sea issue in light of the recent joint statement by China, Brunei, Cambodia and Laos in view of the fact that Singapore is currently the ASEAN-China dialogue partnership coordinator.


PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced in April 2016 a four-point consensus after his trips to Brunei, Cambodia and Laos. There have been no public statements on this four-point consensus from ASEAN Member States to date.

2        ASEAN’s last public consensus position on the South China Sea was reflected in the Chairman’s Statement following the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Retreat in Vientiane in February 2016. The Chair, Lao PDR, had emphasised that all 10 ASEAN Foreign Ministers remained seriously concerned over the recent and ongoing developments in the South China Sea, and reaffirmed the need to enhance mutual trust and confidence.  In addition, there was the need for all stakeholders to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities, and to pursue peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law. 

3        This sentiment was most recently conveyed by the ASEAN Foreign Ministers during the Special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers’ Meeting which we held in Kunming, China, on the 14th of June.  We had a very frank and robust exchange of views , including the situation in the South China Sea.   ASEAN Member States and China broadly reaffirmed the importance of our multi-faceted and our mutually beneficial relationship.  We also underscored the importance of ASEAN unity and Centrality in issues of common interest to ASEAN, including the absolute need for peace and stability and freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea.

4        The media attention that occurred after that meeting on the failure to issue an ASEAN Joint Press Statement in fact reflects the importance the international community places on ASEAN’s unity and on the developments in the South China Sea.  The 49th ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting is scheduled in two weeks’ time and I’m sure this issue will arise again.

5        On our part, I just want to emphasise that Singapore is not currently the Chairman of ASEAN and we are also, very importantly not a claimant state in the South China Sea.  We have consistently stated that Singapore takes no position on the merits of the specific territorial claims and the Philippines’ arbitration proceedings against China was a national decision undertaken by the Philippines without consultation with the rest of us. Singapore’s position on this matter has also been clearly articulated in January 2013 by my predecessor, Minister K Shanmugam, here in Parliament.  In brief, our position is that the overlapping sovereignty claims in the South China Sea should be settled by the parties concerned.  However, this should be done in accordance with international law, including the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).  All parties should refrain from provocative behaviour that could raise tensions in the South China Sea. 

6        Territorial claims could be resolved by negotiations, adjudication or arbitration.  The Six-Point Principles on the South China Sea that was adopted by ASEAN in 2012 clearly states that ASEAN supports the peaceful settlement of disputes, in accordance with international law, including 1982 UNCLOS.  In fact, seven out of the ten ASEAN Member States have used adjudication and or arbitration to resolve disputes in the past.  ASEAN at the highest levels has also consistently reaffirmed the principle that disputes should be settled peacefully, with full respect for legal and diplomatic processes, and this was most recently issued by our Leaders in the Sunnylands Declaration after the Special ASEAN-US Leaders’ Summit in February 2016.

7        As the current country coordinator for ASEAN-China relations, Singapore will fully support and we will facilitate the existing ASEAN-led processes to manage or to help manage the tensions in the South China Sea.  We will continue to perform this role in a transparent, objective manner, with the aim of preserving ASEAN unity and credibility while simultaneously advancing our multi-faceted and mutually beneficial relationship with China.  This includes the full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) and the expeditious conclusion of a legally-binding Code of Conduct for Parties in the South China Sea (COC). 

8        We have made some, albeit slow, progress in confidence-building and conflict-prevention measures.    At recent ASEAN-China Senior Officials’ Meetings on the Implementation of the DOC that were co-chaired by Singapore and China, we adopted the MFA-to-MFA hotline for maritime emergencies, which will be manned on a 24/7 basis.  This hotline will help build confidence among parties to the DOC, and hopefully help prevent ground accidents.   We also started preliminary discussions on a proposed Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea to be applied in the South China Sea, on which I had previously briefed Members.  We hope the observance of CUES, this Code of Unplanned Encounters at Sea, will send a positive signal and help manage the situation at sea and prevent miscalculations. 

9        Our officials have also begun looking at possible elements of the Code of Conduct but quite frankly, this will take time.  Progress has been extremely slow on this front.  As country coordinator of ASEAN-China dialogue relations and as the co-chair of the DOC process, Singapore will continue to work closely with all stakeholders to advance ASEAN unity, credibility and centrality.


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Mr Dennis Tan:  Mdm Speaker, I would like to thank the Minister for his comprehensive answer.  I have a few supplementary questions.  Firstly, in light of the expected ruling tomorrow, will there be or will Singapore be pursuing a joint ASEAN position on the expected ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration?  Secondly, what would be Singapore’s stand on the expected ruling?  Thirdly, if China does indeed not abide by the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration as it declared earlier, what would be Singapore’s reaction to that?  And finally, will the Minister share with us your assessment of how China’s military deployments in the South China Sea, or indeed the position that China has been taking regarding the South China Sea, may affect Singapore with respect to shipping and overflight issues in the South China Sea?

MINISTER:  Let me deal with your first question.  Will there be a joint ASEAN statement?  First, we will have to see what the ruling is tomorrow.  I am not privy to it.  And I think all of us – all stakeholders and all interested parties – will have to study it in great detail.  That is the first point. 

                Secondly, it would be ideal that ASEAN speaks with a common voice, but on the basis of consensus because that is a key tenet by which ASEAN arrives at decisions.  So I cannot, at this point in time, give you an answer with any certainty on whether there will be a joint ASEAN statement.  It depends on the ruling, it depends on the respective analysis and assessments by the sovereign countries, and then it will depend on whether there is a consensus.  So we will have to wait and see.  I’m going to be quite busy for the next few days. 

                Where does Singapore stand? Well as I said, first, we are not a claimant state, fortunately.  So we have no dispute with China.  We have no overlapping claims with any ASEAN members in the South China Sea.  What we stand for is, we believe in a rules-based world order where decisions are made on the basis of law, on the basis of international law, and not on the basis of might or size.  We believe in a peaceful resolution of disputes, and I said earlier in my answer, including negotiations, adjudication or arbitration.  In the case of Singapore, we have on more than one occasion used adjudication or arbitration to successfully settle disagreements.  It has worked for us.

                Third, we need freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea.  Because the South China Sea is a crucial avenue through which at least 5 trillion dollars’ worth of global trade flows through.  It’s not enough to just talk about freedom of navigation and overflight, but we all know that there needs to be a sense of security and stability so that people who are transiting, goods and services flowing through the South China Sea, will be able to do so with some certainty and clarity.  This therefore makes it very important that all stakeholders do not unnecessarily escalate tensions in order to make a point; because such escalation of tensions will have profound impact on global trade and will affect even non-claimant states like us. 

                The other questions on what will we do if China does not comply –  I will consider that to be a hypothetical question at this point in time and with due respect, I don’t wish to engage in speculation at this point.

                As far as your fourth supplementary question on military activities, I would say I have addressed it earlier on.  The key point is to reduce tensions and to look for peaceful resolution of differences.  We believe this is still possible, and we hope that cooler heads will prevail.


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