VIENTIANE, Laos: The strained relations between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and China due to South China Sea disputes can be harnessed into continued economic growth, said Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Thursday (Sep 7).
ASEAN members like the Philippines and Vietnam are currently in dispute with China over claims to parts of the South China Sea.
Speaking at the ASEAN-China Summit to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the two parties’ dialogue relations, Mr Lee reminded those in attendance – including China Premier Li Keqiang, whom he met on Wednesday – that “even in the strongest of relationships, issues will arise from time to time”.
“One such issue is the South China Sea. However, every crisis presents an opportunity,” said Mr Lee. “This issue can be turned to our advantage in pursuit of the common goal of regional peace and stability, which are essential prerequisites for continued economic growth.”
He hailed China’s proposal to formulate a framework for a Code of Conduct for rules of engagement in the South China Sea by the first half of 2017, and promised that Singapore – as coordinator of ASEAN-China relations – would work with Beijing to “fast-track negotiations”.
“Therefore, let us keep our overall relations in the proper perspective. Our relations are much broader than any one issue,” said Mr Lee. “We can continue to chart positive trajectory for ASEAN-China relations.”
ASEAN: CHINA’S LARGEST TRADING PARTNER?
Turning his attention to ASEAN-China’s economic ties, Mr Lee emphasised the latter’s position as the top trading partner for “almost every ASEAN member state”.
“Two‐way trade has grown enormously, from US$8 billion 25 years ago to US$370 billion now,” he said.
Mr Lee cited an upgrade to the ASEAN‐China Free Trade Area, effective for more than half of the parties by this October, along with a finalisation of the Joint Statement on Production Capacity Cooperation as examples.
“Our efforts at economic cooperation will bring us closer to our target of US$1 trillion of bilateral trade and US$150 billion in investments by 2020 and by then, ASEAN could potentially surpass the EU and US to become China’s largest trading partner,” he said.
Mr Lee noted that ASEAN and China’s 25-year dialogue relations have “developed a dynamic partnership with cooperating in a wide range of areas”. These are relations grounded in principles of mutual benefit and respect for ‘ASEAN Centrality’, he added.
“China’s success benefits the region, and it is also in China’s interest for ASEAN to succeed.,” he concluded. “As the ASEAN-China country coordinator, Singapore would do our part to advance this important relationship in all areas of mutual benefit.”