Singapore has said it is in China's own interests to clarify its claims in the South China Sea. The current ambiguity has caused concerns, and recent incidents have raised serious questions over international law regarding maritime boundaries.
A spokesman for Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) made the comments yesterday, after a Chinese patrol vessel docked in Singapore.
The MFA said this ought to have been a routine visit, part of existing exchanges between Chinese and Singaporean maritime officials. "After all scores of vessels from many countries, including naval vessels, call at Singapore every day without arousing the slightest excitement," the spokesman said.
But the MFA acknowledged there has been an "unusual number" of enquiries over the visit because of recent incidents involving China, Vietnam, and the Philippines in the South China Sea.
The spokesman reiterated that Singapore is not a claimant state in the matter, and "takes no position on the merits or otherwise of the various claims".
However, the MFA added that: "as a major trading nation, Singapore has a critical interest in anything affecting freedom of navigation in all international sea lanes, including those in the South China Sea."
Thus the MFA urged countries to conclude negotiations on the implementation guidelines for the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. The agreement was signed between ASEAN and China in 2002, but implementation has been held up for almost a decade.
"ASEAN has recently made some new proposals to China to resolve this impasse," the spokesman said, "and we hope that they will be received in the spirit of goodwill and cooperation in which they were offered so that the DOC can be implemented without any further delay. Then perhaps a routine port call will not arouse so much excitement."
Media Comment: MFA Spokesman's Comments in responses to media queries on the visit of Chinese maritime surveillance vessel Haixun 31 to Singapore [Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 20 June 2011]
Report: Haixun 31: MFA seeks to put China ship's visit in perspective [TODAY, 21 June 2011]
The dispute over the South China Sea has been brewing for decades, with China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei all laying competing claims to parts of the sea. The area is believed to hold valuable oil and minerals, and is also important for fishing.
But of all the countries, China's claim is the largest, covering a U-shaped area over the entire region. In recent weeks tensions have grown more serious. Vietnam and the Philippines have accused China of aggression. Both Vietnam and China have held military drills in the region.
Analysis: In South China Sea, every side has its say [The Washington Post, 20 June 2011]
Over the weekend, the Philippine Navy also strengthened their presence in the disputed waters, deploying their flagship on patrol. The BRP Rajah Humabon is the country's biggest and oldest warship, the last World War II-era frigate in active service.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said the move demonstrates the Philippines won’t be bullied by China.
The Philippines and the United States are also set to hold joint naval exercises at the end of the month, from 28 June to 8 July, under their defense agreement.
Analysis: On sending Philippine Navy’s biggest warship to Spratlys [Philippine Daily Inquirer, 20 June 2011]