BEIJING - Singapore may not be a claimant state in the South China Sea issue, but its survival is tied to the waters and it wants to see the disputes managed responsibly and peacefully, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Regardless of how the issue is resolved, freedom of navigation must be maintained and the centrality of Asean cannot be diminished, he stressed yesterday.
If the growing tensions in the waters affect Asean as a cohesive body, it would hurt Singapore's security and influence, he added in a speech to senior Chinese officials at the Central Party School, the top institution of learning for Chinese Communist Party cadres.
"A divided or discredited Asean will lead to a scenario where the member states are forced to choose between major powers, and South-east Asia becomes a new arena for rivalries and contention. No one wins," he cautioned.
His message came amid worsening relations between China and some members of the regional bloc over disputes in the South China Sea. While Beijing lays claim to almost the entire sea, it faces competing sovereignty assertions from Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei.
The squabbles have led to a naval stand-off between China and the Philippines and even an unprecedented diplomatic breakdown. An Asean ministers' meeting in July failed to issue a joint statement for the first time when host Cambodia, China's ally, refused mention of the disputes.
This would not do, said Mr Lee, whose six-day official visit to China ends today. "For Asean not to address it would severely damage its credibility," he added.
It would in turn hurt Singapore, which is neutral and takes no sides in this dispute. The key reason is that Singapore is a small country, he explained. It needs a peaceful and stable South-east Asia to ensure its own security, and a cohesive Asean is critical to that regional harmony.
And with foreign trade at three times Singapore's gross domestic product (GDP), the free flow of goods is the "lifeblood" of its economy and freedom of navigation in its sea lanes is critical.
"We have only two: the Malacca Strait and the South China Sea," he said in a wide-ranging 40-minute Mandarin speech which also touched on China's rise, its relations with the United States, and ties with Singapore.
"Therefore the South China Sea is strategically important for our survival and development."
The issue has wider significance for Asean and China too, he observed, with many states reading it as a sign of what China's rise means for the world and how Asean deals with difficult issues.
He said he is confident that Beijing will usher in "an extended period" of peace and prosperity for itself, Asia and the world.
But the key for China is also to be able to look beyond immediate issues, he said at a dialogue after his speech. "Shoals are important, oil wells are important and gas underneath the South China Sea is also important. But the long-term standing of China, not just in Asia but in the world, is critical."
Mr Lee met Premier Wen Jiabao later yesterday.
Noting that bilateral trade had jumped four times in the past decade, Mr Wen said: "Our exchange and cooperation in all fields have made significant progress."