WASHINGTON – Maintaining full freedom of navigation for all in the South China Sea is crucial not only for candidate countries but also for the international community as a whole, given the scale of global trade flowing through the waters, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Friday. (May 13).
The disputed waters were prominent during the two-day summit between US and ASEAN leaders in Washington, both explicitly in speeches by the leaders and implicitly in maritime cooperation programs rolled out by the United States.
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam claim parts of the sea that overlap with China’s demands. Beijing claims up to 90 percent of the disputed waters based on a historic nine-line line, but an international arbitral tribunal ruled in 2016 that China had no legal basis to claim historic rights to marine resources.
The United States has criticized China for violating international law and intimidating and forcing the Southeast Asian plaintiffs, which Beijing denies.
During a plenary session with ASEAN leaders and US President Joe Biden, Prime Minister Lee said that Singapore supports the adoption of a Code of Conduct (COC) for the South China Sea.
“Singapore supports the conclusion of a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea, a code that conforms to universally recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) and one that safeguards the rights and interests of all parties, “he said.
Earlier, during a working lunch hosted by US Vice President Kamala Harris, Prime Minister Lee also praised the progress of maritime cooperation between the regional bloc and the United States.
More generally, he also urged the United States to work with China to resolve tensions in the relationship and build mutual trust.
“The path of our cooperation between ASEAN and the United States, and more generally the pace of the global economic recovery and how countries are coping with geopolitical developments, will depend crucially on how US-China relations develop,” he said.
The different views of the ASEAN countries on Ukraine
The United States and ASEAN also referred to the war in Ukraine in their joint declaration issued after the summit, reaffirming their respect for sovereignty, political independence and territorial integrity.
They also again called for compliance with the UN Charter and international law, which prohibits the use of force against the territorial integrity of another state, except in cases of self-defense.
However, it lacked any mention of Russia and its role in the invasion of Ukraine. The United States has tried to provoke international condemnation and sanctions against Russia, but the ASEAN countries have mostly been more cautious in their disapproval of Moscow or ambivalent.
Prime Minister Lee told Singapore reporters that ASEAN as a whole has taken a stand, but that the statement was not as strong as it could be because different ASEAN countries have different views.
He elaborated on the range of views, pointing out how Vietnam and Laos abstained from voting in the UN General Assembly condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in March. The rest of Asean’s members supported the decision.
“If you look at the national declarations and the national actions, I think Singapore is the most straightforward declaration that we have issued. We also had some targeted sanctions against Russia,” said Prime Minister Lee.
Cambodia also had a very strong statement and clear stance, he said.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen was quite unequivocal in his explanation of his position that there should be absolute rules against violating the territorial integrity and sovereignty and independence of other countries. Where else do the small countries stand?”
While the other countries will stand up for that principle, they also have more significant ties with Russia that they want to maintain, he said.
“And then they have nuanced their response. Some of them have talked about the conflict in Ukraine without mentioning who the aggressor is. They think it may be useful. Well, they have taken that position, but we have each done our position is clear, “said Prime Minister Lee.