S China Sea dispute: Republic ‘does not take sides but has key interests’ to protect

S China Sea dispute: Republic ‘does not take sides but has key interests’ to protect
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (C) delivers a speech at the opening of a dinner hosted by his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe (2nd R) at the state guest house in Tokyo, Japan, 28 September 2016. Photo: Reuters
Published: 4:00 AM, September 29, 2016
Updated: 7:53 AM, September 29, 2016

TOKYO — Singapore does not take sides in the South China Sea dispute, and is not a claimant state, but it has “key interests” to protect, reiterated Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday.

Addressing the media after a summit meeting with his Japan counterpart Shinzo Abe, during which the dispute was discussed, Mr Lee said these interests include “freedom of navigation and overflight” in the region. “This also includes a rules-based regional and international order, an order that upholds and protects the rights and privileges of all states and shows full respect for legal and diplomatic processes in the resolution of disputes,” he said.

Mr Abe, commenting on the issue, said: “We reaffirmed the importance of the rule of law and collaboration in the international community.”

Mr Lee’s comments came after Singapore took issue with a Sept 21 report in the influential Chinese state-owned Global Times tabloid, which claimed that the Republic had tried to push for a stronger statement on an international tribunal’s ruling on the South China Sea at the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit last week in Venezuela.

Citing unnamed sources, Global Times had claimed that during discussions on the outcome documents at the NAM meeting, Singapore “insisted on shoving in content endorsing the Philippines’ South China Sea arbitration case” but “the attempt failed due to strong objections from multiple countries”.

In its ruling on July 12, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague had invalidated Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea and found that China had breached the Philippines’ sovereign rights there. China has vowed to ignore the ruling.

In a letter on Monday to Mr Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of Global Times, Singapore’s ambassador to China Stanley Loh said the Republic’s delegation had not raised the South China Sea or the tribunal ruling at the summit and the newspaper’s article had attributed actions and words to Singapore which are “false and unfounded”.

Instead it was Asean — through its chairman Laos — which had conveyed the regional grouping’s common position on the South China Sea to NAM, only for current NAM Chair Venezuela to improperly reject Asean’s collective request to update the South-east Asia paragraphs in the NAM Final Document to reflect the consensus of all 10 Asean Member States.

Mr Hu defended Global Times’ report in a reply letter on Tuesday, saying that it was written based on “serious and reliable” sources. “From my perspective, Mr Ambassador should urge your country to conduct self-reflection instead of putting labels on Global Times which reported on the factual situation,” Mr Hu wrote.

Yesterday, the exchange continued, with Mr Loh stating that the crux of the matter is that Global Times’ Sept 21 report did not accurately reflect the proceedings at the recent NAM Summit, which can be verified by the public record of the meeting.

Commenting on the issue, Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said on Tuesday that NAM was not the proper forum to discuss the South China Sea issue. Asked if China-Singapore ties will be affected by the episode, he said: “China and Singapore established the All-Round Cooperative Partnership Progressing with the Times last year. I want to stress that on issues concerning the core interests and major concerns of the two sides, China and Singapore should understand and respect each other.” LIN YANQIN IN TOKYO