Asean Still Pushing for South China Sea Code of Conduct, Says Ng

Southeast Asian nations are progressing with China on a code of conduct for the contested South China Sea, with overcoming issues of sovereignty the “holy grail” of such a charter, Singapore’s Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen said.

“I think there can be quick resolution on freedom of navigation,” Ng told reporters today in Honolulu after attending a two-day meeting of defense ministers from Southeast Asia hosted by U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. “Fisheries gets a little bit more complex and hydro-carbon issues get very much more complex and obviously the holy grail is sovereignty issues.”

All countries in the region including Singapore, which is not a claimant to territory in the South China Sea, are concerned about the unresolved disputes between China and other nations, Ng said. China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations would like to reach agreement on the code of conduct as soon as possible, he said.

Asean is seeking the code for the oil-and gas-rich waters, through which some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes run, at a time of China’s increased military assertiveness in the region. Even so the talks have made little progress since China agreed last July to start discussions, and China introduced fishing rules in January requiring foreign vessels to seek permission before entering waters off its southern coast.

Disputed Territory

“Minor lapses or events that have very little strategic consequences could end up precipitating conflicts,” Ng said. Tensions have risen between China and the Philippines, which has taken its dispute to a United Nations tribunal. Chinese ships used water cannons in January to drive Filipino fishermen away from the Scarborough Shoal, according to the Philippine military. China warned off two Philippine boats near the Second Thomas Shoal early in March, its Foreign Ministry said March 10.

China is not opposed to a multinational forum to resolve such disputes, Ng said. Still, “one can understand why China would prefer to settle its bilateral disputes bilaterally.”

The U.S. commitment to Asia seems strong even as several crises vie for the Obama administration’s attention, Ng said.

“For us in the Asean region the fact that we had this meeting amidst so many events occurring,” ranging from a shooting at the U.S. military base in Fort Hood, Texas, that left four dead, to the Russian annexation of Crimea “underscored to us the depth” of the U.S. commitment, he said.

Asked if the U.S. attention to Asia could decline as the Obama administration grapples with Russian aggression, Ng said, “I don’t think one ought to judge the U.S.’s resolve, neither its ability, neither its commitment at a single point in time.”

Disaster Relief

Defense ministers from the 10 countries that make up Asean met in the U.S. for the first time in Honolulu during the continued search for a missing Malaysian Air passenger jet, heightened tensions in the South China Sea and a tsunami warning after an April 1 earthquake off the coast of Chile.

In Honolulu, Asean ministers discussed ways in which nations could better deal with natural disasters and visited a U.S. typhoon warning center as well as the USS Anchorage, a Navy amphibious vessel that is equipped to provide disaster relief.

Singapore today offered its Asean partners the use of its command and control center in Changi near the country’s airport to help coordinate responses to natural disasters, especially in the aftermath of Super Typhoon Haiyan that hit the Philippines last year killing more than 6,000 people, Ng said.

Singapore’s maritime security information sharing center set up in 2007 will be available for other countries in the region to use to coordinate disaster relief, Ng said.

“It’s very difficult for the affected country to set up” a command and control center because communication lines may be down or they may not have the capacity, he said. Countries in the region “really needed a crisis center stood up that can be scaled up over time.”

The center has essential infrastructure to allow an affected country to plug in “all the information that various agencies would bring to bear when such a crisis occurs and make a coherent picture that everyone can see.”

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