Ministry of Foreign Affairs Committee of Supply 2016 – Cuts by WP MPs and NCMPs

(Delivered in Parliament on 6 April 2016)

South China Sea Tension – Pritam Singh

Mr Chairman, the tensions in the South China Sea appear to have taken a turn for the worse in 2016, manifested most acutely by the timing of China’s deployment of an air defence unit on the disputed Woody Island, precisely when the inaugural ASEAN-US Summit in the US was taking place earlier in February this year. In addition, with the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling on the case between the Philippines and China on China’s claims over much of the South China Sea – which is expected to be released in the near future – questions on the extent and legitimacy China’s claims are likely to come to the fore again, raising temperatures once more. The month of March in fact has seen a perceptible rise in the number of commentaries and even editorials in the local press, particularly over the last month, that mirror these heightened tensions.

These developments are taking place when Singapore is into its first year as coordinator of ASEAN-China dialogue relations. The role is a significant one as ASEAN’s failure to issue a joint communiqué at the 45th ASEAN Ministerial Meeting in 2012 was due to developments in the South China Sea. To that end, the Ministry has wasted no time in getting down to work as coordinator, proposing a Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), in the spirit of Singapore’s reputation on this matter as an honest broker and its reputation as a constructive player in the international arena. What has been ASEAN and China’s response to CUES?

Separately, in 2013, the Ministry confirmed that ASEAN and China were still at the stage where they were “talking about talks” on the Code of Conduct or COC. Last year, the Minister of Foreign Affairs confirmed that China had indicated its willingness to work on the COC and that Singapore’s task is to focus on to make sure how parties engage with each other on the high seas. To this end, what progress has been made on the full implementation of the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), including cooperative projects between ASEAN and China? What is China’s position on the DOC currently and has it changed, given that it has previously stressed that the DOC should precede the COC, even if ASEAN’s position is that both are not sequential and can be addressed together.

Finally, at the 7th ASEAN Defence Minister’s Meeting, the ASEAN partners suggested some measures to promote stable military-to-military relations in the South China Sea, including a “no first use of force” agreement among claimant states, in line with intent of the articles of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation as suggested by Vietnam. Brunei suggested establishing hotlines to reduce tensions and misunderstandings. Can the Ministry confirm if such proposals have been implemented and whether China has been invited to join these initiatives?