China and Asean want stability
Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam spoke to the media yesterday on Asean-China relations. The issue of Asean's role in the South China Sea disputes between some Asean states and China has come to the fore after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong gave a speech on this during an official visit to China last week. Following up on that visit, Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Fu Ying visited Singapore last weekend for bilateral consultations with Singapore officials ahead of the East Asia Summit later this year. During her visit, she spoke to The Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao and gave written replies to additional questions. Excerpts of exchanges with Mr Shanmugam and Madam Fu are below.
Published 12 Sep 2012
FOREIGN MINISTER K. SHANMUGAM
There were recent reports in the Philippine media about Singapore's stand (on Manila's position in the dispute) and Singapore has clarified. Would you like to elaborate on it?
Singapore has taken a position of strict neutrality, that's been our consistent position. We have always said the claims are for the claimant states to settle, Asean should be neutral, and certainly Singapore has always been and continues to be neutral on the claims. So I think it is maybe overactive imagination at play in some of the commentaries.
Our position is that the claims should be resolved in accordance with international law, including Unclos (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea). The Philippine Foreign Ministry knows that, and has been careful in the way it has put out its statements. Media commentaries have taken it to a different level. Absolutely no truth to that.
Could you elaborate on the role of Asean? The Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister in the ST interview seems to say that if Asean takes sides, it would be difficult, and that it should not negotiate on behalf of members. What is our position on Asean's role in these disputes?
We had several long and frank discussions in China during the PM's visit, and that was followed by bilateral consultations where the Vice-Foreign Minister had discussions with me and both my permanent secretaries.
These have allowed us to get a better perspective on China's position and for China to get a better perspective on our position.
We have always taken the position - we as in Singapore, and that I think goes for Asean speaking with one voice - that as far as the claims are concerned, they ought to be resolved between the claimant states. Asean comprises both claimant states and non-claimant states.
Asean's role, as Singapore has articulated and others have articulated, is not to deal with the claims themselves, but in the broader setting of a framework which would allow for a peaceful resolution of these claims. For example, Asean had a role in formulating the Declaration of Conduct (DOC), the implementation guidelines of the DOC, and likewise, in the Code of Conduct (COC) that we hope will be negotiated, Asean will have a role. So that's the context in which we have said Asean has a role, not in the specific delineation or settlement of claims between claimant states.
What points were not so well understood before?
It won't be appropriate for me to go into details because then I would be going into very private discussions. Suffice it to say that Madam Fu Ying made two points; one, that PM Lee had very deep and frank discussions with the Chinese leaders, and that likewise during the bilaterals, she had very deep and frank discussions with me and my perm secs. Those are her words and I echo them completely. She also said that this has given China a better perspective on Singapore's position.
Likewise, it has also given us a better perspective on China's position. There were concrete things we can point to, but it would not be appropriate.
Given that both sides have a better perspective of each other's position, how would this then play into the formulation of the COC?
We are not yet talking about the Code of Conduct. Various things were mentioned in Phnom Penh about the COC. Asean has taken the position that we should start negotiations on the COC soon, and we all impressed upon China when we met with them, the Chinese officials, and I think they listened to what we have to say - they listen carefully, you know - we will continue to work on that.
Is China open to the idea of the COC?
China has always been open to the idea, China has agreed to the idea of the COC, but in July they took the position that the timing was not right. We have asked them to reconsider that; the actual claims will take a long time to resolve - sovereignty issues are not easily resolved.
But meanwhile, how people behave towards each other, how countries behave towards each other on the ground, that is what the COC can try and deal with. That itself will take some time.
The sooner we start, the better it is for everyone, and it'll help to reduce the possibilities of events on the ground getting out of hand. That's really the purpose of the COC.
During Madam Fu Ying's interview, she made the statement that there was a declaration, but it was not followed by Asean members, that's why she is sceptical of the COC. So how to ensure that the COC will be honoured?
That has been the position China has expressed to us. And the position we have expressed to them is that the events happened, claims take place, China has a perspective, the other claimants take a perspective, how do we deal with this, going forward? And we impress upon China, as we impress upon others as well, that really, a Code of Conduct would be good for China and would be good for others, because it will deal with conduct that is acceptable and conduct that is not acceptable.
Will it be legally binding?
The precise contours of how the agreement should be structured is something that is for negotiations, but I think anything that parties agree to in a broad setting, we can expect that there would be quite considerable need to comply with what you have signed up to.
Can you reiterate why Singapore is so interested in the peaceful resolution of the dispute even though we have nothing to do with it?
The South China Sea is one of our two vital waterways. The entire Asia-Pacific region, one of the few bright spots in the world economy today, has risen and prospered in the last 40, 50 years, because of peace and stability.
Anything that impacts on that peace and stability seriously impacts on every one of us, whether we are a claimant or a non-claimant. If the South China Sea dispute looms large when investors and business people think of this region, and it is seen as an area of instability, that has a deep impact on Singapore.
So we are not a claimant state, we have no territorial claims, but we have every interest in wanting the disputes to be resolved in as peaceful a way as possible. And that is not just our perspective. That is the position of the other Asean states, the non-claimant states as well as the claimant states, and that is indeed China's position as well.
China recognises that peace and stability are essential for it to continue to develop, so China wants it as much as anyone else. And China and Singapore have agreed to work closely on these matters. So the visit was very good in these ways and the follow-up was also very good. We are very happy with the way events have unfolded with the visit and the discussions, and our task is to try and keep it on this track rather than getting it going awry.
China's stand is to deal with claimant states one to one.
We don't take the position that the non-claimant states will have a direct role in the settling of disputes between the parties, we have always been clear that Asean's role - Asean as a whole, 10 states - is in dealing with the framework, and that's a principle that has been accepted because Asean is a party to the DOC, Asean came up with the implementation guidelines, so that is really a non-contentious principle, and likewise Asean's involvement in the COC; and that's why I say some of the media reports make it sound as if there is a sharp difference, when in fact if you look at what has happened historically in terms of precedents, Asean has always played a role.
Then the question is what sort of role, that is, in setting the framework.
We play the role of a neutral Asean country that has every interest in seeing the peaceful resolution of the disputes, and taking the position that Asean as a whole should be neutral and facilitative and constructive, and I think most people will agree that we have played that role thus far.
Building a new power relationship with US
CHINA'S VICE-FOREIGN MINISTER FU YING
Would you like to talk a bit about the purpose of your visit to Singapore, close on the heels of PM Lee's visit to China, and what you have discussed with Singapore officials?
I am glad to come to Singapore soon after Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's visit to China. I have co-chaired the China-Singapore bilateral diplomatic consultations with Permanent Secretary Bilahari Kausikan. I have also had good meetings with Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam and Second Permanent Secretary Chee Wee Kiong.
During his stay in Beijing, Prime Minister Lee had extensive discussions with Chinese leaders on how to respond to the global economic challenges and how to take China-Singapore cooperation to a higher level. I was impressed by the depth and candidness of the exchanges as well as our shared common aspirations and understanding on many issues of our times.
Singapore played a unique role in China's reform and opening-up process. It was Deng Xiaoping who visited Singapore in 1978, paving the ground for decades of mutually beneficial partnership. The 18-year-old Suzhou Industrial Park stands as an embodiment of this partnership. Now, China-Singapore joint projects are found in many parts of the country and Singapore is still regarded as a special friend of China.
As the world around us changes fast, both China and Singapore have also been changing. The new challenge for the relationship is how to keep abreast of the times, how to identify new areas of cooperation, how to improve understanding, how to handle difficult issues and how to work on regional agendas that help to better promote peace and prosperity.
Alongside our enormous commonalities, our two countries may also see some issues differently.
The important thing for us is to be fair-minded, respect and listen to each other and accommodate each other's concerns. Only in this way can we build mutual trust and keep the momentum of cooperation.
In my discussions here, I learnt more about Singapore's views of the region. I will leave Singapore confident that we will be able to forge closer understanding and cooperation for the future.
How would you characterise China-Asean relations? Does China stand to gain if Asean suffers from a lack of unity?
Twenty-one years have passed since China had its first dialogue with Asean. It has been an extraordinary journey of persistent and patient steps to build understanding, trust and cooperation. Now, we are one of the closest strategic partners.
I remember during the Asian financial crisis of 1997, China decided not to devalue its currency despite costs to our own economy. This action not only protected the region from further sliding down but also fended off further negative impact on China. That was a good example of the mutual benefit brought by China's good neighbourly policy.
Our relationship took a major step forward with the launch of the China-Asean Free Trade Area.
China's Asean policy is centred on pursuing good neighbourliness and mutually beneficial cooperation...
Given the new challenges of international economic and financial uncertainties, China and Asean need to stay united and be prepared for possibly tougher circumstances.
The coming East Asia Leaders' Meetings will offer a good opportunity for the region to initiate new ideas and launch new programmes against a trying time.
I was there in Phnom Penh attending the Asean Post-Ministerial Conferences in July. As far as I know, the main focus of the Asean Ministerial Meeting was about Asean community-building.
I found the meetings substantive and productive. Though there was a setback regarding the Joint Communique, I'm glad that in the end, Asean countries mostly agreed that it was important to maintain unity by keeping with the "Asean way" or "East Asia way", which emphasises the principles of consensus and accommodating comfort levels, including for its dialogue partners. This forms the very basis for the success of Asean and its centrality in the region.
In China, many are watching and wondering if Asean will stay firm on matters of principle or become a spokesman for certain countries. For China, we have always supported Asean unity and hope that Asean will keep its strategic vision and continue to play a leading role in the region.
Have you discussed the South China Sea issue with Singapore officials?
The "South China Sea issue" is mainly about disputes over sovereignty and maritime rights concerning some islands and reefs of Nansha. There is no question that China has strong historical and legal evidence to support its sovereignty over the Nansha Islands and therefore rights over the adjacent waters. China discovered the Nansha Islands as early as 2,000 years ago and began to exercise jurisdiction over them more than 1,000 years ago.
Problems started mainly in the 1960s and 1970s when some countries began to take islands and reefs. Conscious of our responsibilities for the region as a major country, China has exercised self-restraint and committed to seek the peaceful resolution of disputes through bilateral negotiations.
Shelving disputes and pursuing common development have thus been the fundamental position for China in its dialogue with Asean, which led to the signing of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC).
The challenge now is that some claimants are not following the DOC. They have made repeated provocations in the South China Sea, which came as a shock to the Chinese people. Since the DOC has provided for the eventual adoption of a Code of Conduct (COC), we should be working towards such an objective.
However, it is first of all a must that all countries concerned follow the DOC and refrain from any new provocative actions. This naturally includes Asean members.
Second, COC discussions should be held among all participants as equals. It should not be one side imposing its views onto the other.
Third, the COC should aim to promote peace and stability in the South China Sea, rather than reinforcing some parties' claims.
Should the region be afraid over China's rise and the possibility of its riding roughshod over smaller countries in the region, given the increasing signs of China's assertiveness, particularly in the past two years?
China puts relations with its neighbours at the top of its foreign policy agenda. History shows that if a country handles relations with its neighbours poorly... it will have great difficulties growing into a major power. We in China see good relations with our neighbours as a sure path leading to a greater global role.
China is a country that has suffered much from aggression and humiliation in the past. The Chinese people have a strong sense of fairness and justice when it comes to international issues. You rarely hear them attacking other people or intervening in other countries' internal affairs. However, when provoked, they react quickly and express their indignation. This is quite normal in most developing countries. Likewise, the Chinese government cannot but respond to its people and take measures to safeguard the rights and interests of the country.
How does China see the United States' pivot to the Asia-Pacific?
The rise of Asia's political and economic weight in recent years has made the region attractive. I am not surprised that the US, a country with strategic vision, is paying more attention to Asia. Countries in the region welcome more US input to contribute more to regional peace and prosperity.
However, concern has been often raised in the region as well as in China, as the United States' stated "rebalancing" has been largely focused on military aspects. The question is: Who is the target? I have noticed that the US is responding to the concerns by adding more economic and cultural elements to its activities in Asia. We hope that the hard-won progress of the region is valued and advanced.
China has proposed to the US to build a new type of power relationship with the US to avoid repeating conflicts between rising and established powers in history. The US has responded positively.
The testing ground for this relationship would be in the Asia-Pacific region. China and the US share extensive common interests in this region. We welcome a constructive role of the US in the region, and stand ready to strengthen dialogue and cooperation with the US on Asian affairs on the basis of equality and mutual respect.
Having said that, if some people in the US insist on seeing China as a threat or a competitor, how should China respond?
That would be a big challenge for China if it is true. China should be able to safeguard its own interest, at the same time avoiding the mistake of being drawn into strategic competition. The US has repeatedly said that its policy is not to contain China but to work with China. It is our hope that a relationship of trust and cooperation with the US can be nurtured in this region. Asean has an important role to play in helping China and the US to move in this direction.