South China Sea claimants should settle dispute peacefully, says Singapore foreign minister


Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan (left) and Philippine Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo during a press conference in Manila. - ST PHOTO: MARA CEPEDA

MANILA (The Straits Times/ANN): Visiting Minister of Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan said Singapore hopes to see claimants in the South China Sea settle the dispute peacefully, as any escalation of tensions would impair trade.

He is in the Philippines for a four-day visit that started on April 15, kicking off the commemoration of 55 years of diplomatic ties in 2024. Singapore and the Philippines are founding members of Asean.

Dr Balakrishnan met President Ferdinand Marcos Jr on April 15 before meeting ranking Filipino lawmakers and Vice-President Sara Duterte the next day.

He also met his Filipino counterpart, Secretary Enrique Manalo, on April 16 to discuss issues of mutual concern, including the South China Sea, as well as establishing a carbon credit market between their two countries and cross-border electricity trade among Asean member states.

“They had a fruitful discussion on ways for both countries to further expand bilateral cooperation, especially in the areas of people-to-people ties, carbon credits, renewable energy and the Asean Power Grid,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.

“They also engaged in a wide-ranging and candid discussion on regional and international developments. They emphasised the importance of strengthening Asean Centrality and unity, and upholding a rules-based international order to promote peace and stability in the region,” it added.

Asked by reporters about the South China Sea at a joint news conference, Dr Balakrishnan said Singapore wants peace and stability in the region.

“Although Singapore has got no claims in the South China Sea, the moment you have escalation of tensions or military actions in the South China Sea, it will immediately impair and impede trade. It will increase insurance premiums,” he said.

Visiting Singapore Minister of Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan (left) met his Filipino counterpart, Secretary Enrique Manalo, on April 16 to discuss issues of mutual concern, including the South China Sea as well as carbon credit trading.  - PHOTO: AFPVisiting Singapore Minister of Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan (left) met his Filipino counterpart, Secretary Enrique Manalo, on April 16 to discuss issues of mutual concern, including the South China Sea as well as carbon credit trading. - PHOTO: AFP

“It will certainly have an inflationary impact on our economies, and it will dampen confidence in what in fact should be multiple decades of growth and progress that we all expect and that our people need in order for us to achieve the economic transformation and the expansion in jobs.”

The key concern over the South China Sea comes after Beijing’s numerous clashes since 2023 with the Philippines near the Second Thomas Shoal, which both countries claim as theirs.

Among the latest incidents was one on March 23, in which Manila said China’s coast guard fired water cannon at one of its supply boats.

Beijing has claimed almost the entire South China Sea, but the nine-dash line accompanying its claim and its land reclamation activities in the contested waters were regarded as unlawful by an international court in 2016 in a case filed by the Philippines.

Four Asean nations – the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam – along with Taiwan have rival claims to parts of the South China Sea.

During the press briefing, Dr Balakrishnan said the concerned parties should resolve the maritime dispute peacefully, adding that the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea already sets a comprehensive international legal framework to settle issues over the disputed waterway.

“Singapore has to believe in the importance of the international rule of law. If it is just the law of the jungle, where the powerful do what they will, and the weak suffer, then the future will be bleak for Singapore and the Philippines,” he said.

Asked by reporters if he sees Singapore changing its foreign policy direction under incoming prime minister Lawrence Wong, Dr Balakrishnan said there will be a status quo. Wong is set to take over from Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on May 15.

“I do not expect any change in foreign policy and in our contributions to Asean,” said Dr Balakrishnan, adding that he also believes Singapore’s ongoing projects and investments in the Philippines will continue.

Manalo said Singapore and the Philippines have a “strong, robust and dynamic relationship,” highlighting that the Republic was Manila’s eighth largest trading partner in 2023. Singapore is also the Philippines’ sixth largest export market and seventh largest import source.

Key Singaporean investments in the Philippines include SIA Engineering’s maintenance, repair and overhaul facility at a free port zone in Clark, Pampanga, a province located 95km north of Manila, and Changi Airports International’s stake in the consortium handling the 25-year concession to operate Clark International Airport.

Dr Balakrishnan will be visiting these Singaporean businesses on April 17. - The Straits Times/ANN

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