Channel Newsasia (CNA): What came out of the discussions today in terms of any progress in the framework for the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea?
Minister: First, this meeting is occurring at a time of great global uncertainty. In fact, the dynamics of the relationship between America and China are still evolving. Even within ASEAN itself, the old consensus on free trade would also be questioned. So it is in that backdrop that this meeting occurred. We discussed several issues. First on economics, all of us were convinced that, now more than ever before, we need closer and more effective ASEAN integration at an economic level. We need to bring down trade barriers. We need to make it easier for ideas, products and services. In fact, we need to increase intra-ASEAN trade. So that is the first point. This is a time to reaffirm the value of ASEAN integration, reaffirm the value of bringing down barriers and to build up our own intra-ASEAN account.
The second point is that there are unfortunately a whole set of regional issues - piracy, terrorism, cybersecurity, haze and even climate change - a whole set of trans-boundary issues which will require a regional response and it is essential for us to get our act together, coordinate our policies and to roll out the effective responses to these. So, that's quite a lot of work in this area.
The third point or theme that was examined is a more geostrategic point, and I have already alluded to it earlier when I said that the relationship between America and China is evolving. That certainly has an impact on ASEAN centrality, ASEAN cohesion, and ASEAN unity.
The first point is that we all reaffirmed the need for ASEAN to remain united, to be cohesive, to be effective if we were to maintain our relevance and centrality. The second point is that we all agreed that we do need peace and stability in our part of the world so that our economies can grow, our people can prosper and get good jobs, build those trade links and improve connectivity to put in the "extra" into investments in our own people and in our own infrastructure. Now for all that to happen, there needs to be a sense of peace and stability and a certain sense of constancy so that investors are prepared to put serious money down to invest in ourselves and our own infrastructure. Whatever happens in the rest of the world, we don't control the agenda of the superpowers, but we do need to make sure, to the best extent possible, that we maintain an oasis of peace and stability in this part of the world. More specifically, that means that some urgent homework needs to be done. We have a deadline of the first half of this year to try to complete the framework for the COC, the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.
I will not say this is going to be easy. I am sure it is going to be difficult, but this is difficult but important work, which we are fully committed to doing our best. In addition to that, there's work which we carried over from last year, the MFA hotlines as well as CUES - the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea. These are confidence-building measures. We need to put them into operation or even to test-run them. So we hope that we can see progress, generate a certain momentum and a certain confidence on CUES and the MFA hotlines and in the framework for the COC. Then we will have some momentum going into the really big challenge, which is to settle a legally binding Code of Conduct. This will take much longer. I think it is good that we are all focused on this. We do our best to make progress on that, because the other parts, the other external elements we can't control anyway.
CNA: Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay said that there were some critical areas that were brought up in regard to the framework of the COC. What were those critical areas?
Minister: We didn't really go into details. What's more important is that a deadline has been set. A framework which really builds on the elements which we already identified last year anyway. But to be able to put that down on a piece of paper which we can all agree on and use that as a foundation for ultimately a legally binding COC. Therein lies the challenge. I'm not trivialising the hard work or the difficult negotiations that are ahead, but we need to do this.
Straits Times (ST): You said that working on the framework will be hard and difficult. Can you specify all the challenges that we face ahead for concluding such a framework?
Minister: Let's take a historical perspective. ASEAN and China had wanted a COC for a very long time. In fact, it's been more than two decades. We have a DOC (Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea), a document, which really was meant to be an interim measure. And that was signed in 2002. We're talking about 15 years later. And even then, the DOC as such, has not been fully operationalised either. So, you need to understand this is not just a simple matter of negotiating the form of words. There are difficult issues which will require engagement of not just Ministries of Foreign Affairs. It involves defence, it involves economics, it involves sovereignty. Don't underestimate the complexities of such negotiations. And the fact that it has taken so long, and we are still in this situation, should give us a sense of reality as to the enormity of the task ahead.
ST: But it's a big push, that China is on board, right?
Minister: Well, China told us last year that they want to settle this by the first half of this year. I think we should all take that in good faith and do our best to try to meet that deadline.
CNA: One of the main points of concern was the militarisation of the islands. Was that something that was brought up during the meeting?
Minister: It was not discussed to any significant extent. Clearly there are some claimants who have anxieties on this point, but I'm really not in any position to go into any detail about this matter.
CNA: And you discussed the issue - one of the topics that was brought up was the cooperation in fighting against illegal drugs, which is one of President Duterte's priorities.
CNA: What was discussed in regard to this?
Minister: It is a trans-boundary issue because drugs flow across borders. Syndicates also operate across borders. There is a need for us to share intelligence, to coordinate control measures where possible. But having said that, within each of our jurisdictions, we have got our own approaches, our own ways of doing things. One key principle in ASEAN is to respect the internal dynamics of the sovereign member states.
Moderator: We can do one more question.
ST: Concerning the arbitration ruling, Secretary Yasay said two foreign ministers pressed for respect for the arbitration rule in view of concerns over recent actions.
Minister: I am really in no position to make any comments on that. I am not here to reveal who said what.
CNA: Just one last question.
CNA: You mentioned as well the revolving foreign policy of the US.
Minister: No, I said it's still evolving, not revolving.
CNA: Was that brought up and how does that affect ASEAN?
Minister: There was a suggestion put forward by Malaysia, because Malaysia is the coordinator of the ASEAN-US relationship, that we should arrange a meeting for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with the ASEAN Foreign Ministers and I think there was unanimous support for that.
ST: [inaudible] flesh out the Trump Administration's foreign policy, sir?
Minister: Well, like I said, we need to meet, we need to engage, we need to listen to each other. This is very early days, so let's wait.
Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Singapore