Nov 14, 2012

Singapore - Don't underestimate' territorial disputes

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SINGAPORE - Political leaders in the region should not underestimate the risks and consequences of the South China Sea territorial disputes, said Foreign Minister K Shanmugam as he warned that the issue could be complicated by the rise of nationalism in several claimant states.

Nevertheless, Mr Shanmugam said there is a "broad degree of recognition" that these issues must be dealt with "in a way that preserves peace and harmony".

Speaking in an interview with Channel NewsAsia ahead of the ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh this weekend, Mr Shanmugam said: "We cannot underestimate the risks because these are territorial claims. It is played out against the backdrop of potentially large mineral carbon resources and a serious complicating factor, the rise of nationalism in the context of these claims in many of the countries involved."

He added: "So it is not easy for the political leaders even if they wanted to make rational decisions ... Often there is a risk that decisions could be influenced or even dominated by domestic public opinion that's risky for all of us."

Mr Shanmugam said he "cannot predict any outcome because that would be more of an expression of hope".

"What I can say is all of us, including the non-claimant states, recognise the need to try and do something to make sure that peace and harmony is preserved," said Mr Shanmugam.

"We are taking a number of steps, talking to each other, senior officials have met ... There is an understanding of what needs to be achieved, there are sometimes disagreements on how it needs to be achieved."

Obama's re-election and what it means for ASEAN

The Association of South-east Asian Nations' ties with the United States will also be entering their 35th year. Mr Shanmugam said President Barack Obama's re-election means a continuity of policies that are in place.

Mr Obama will be at the ASEAN Summit for the ASEAN-US Leaders session on Nov 19. He is also due to visit several ASEAN member countries, including Thailand and Myanmar, during his Asian tour.

Mr Shanmugam said: "The US has taken a number of steps to always engage the region and we have always suggested and said, publicly, and to the US privately, the engagement has got to be constructive. The economic engagement is important and we encourage that. Their security presence has also preserved peace and harmony in the region. So we can see some continuity in the policies."

Outgoing ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan recently said that the ASEAN Economic Community Target of 2015 may be difficult to achieve. Agreeing that it is a "stretched target", Mr Shanmugam said: "But at least we are working towards the target ... If you look at it economically, tariffs have come down substantially. There is a greater movement towards freer trade in goods and services. I think we can say we have made progress."

The summit will also see a new ASEAN Secretary-General, Vietnam's Deputy Foreign Minister Le Luong Minh. Adding that he believes the incoming Secretary-General will do a good job, Mr Shanmugam noted that the changeover comes at a crucial time, with ASEAN facing a number of economic, political and strategic issues.


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