ASEAN KEY DESTINATIONS
Ceremony to upgrade China, ASEAN trade pact cancelled
SINGAPORE: A scheduled signing ceremony between China and ASEAN member states to upgrade a free trade agreement was called off on Saturday (Nov 21).
“We have been working on the signing of the Upgrade Protocol of the ASEAN-China Free Trade Area (ACFTA). I understand that a few key details have still to be worked out and we are not quite ready to sign it today,” said Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the ASEAN-China Summit in Kuala Lumpur on Saturday afternoon.
“I hope in the spirit of ASEAN-China cooperation, we will be able to get this done without delay.”
The meeting was attended by leaders from the 10-member grouping and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.
Foreign Affairs Minister Dr Vivian Balakrishnan had told Singapore media on Friday that ASEAN members and China had agreed to the upgrade, which will enhance opportunities for trade, investment and people-to-people engagement.
The ASEAN-China Free Trade Area was signed in 2004 and was China’s first FTA.
At the meeting, Mr Lee also said ASEAN and China should work towards the full liberalisation of the ASEAN-China Air Transport Agreement, adding this will complement China’s initiative to develop a "21st Century Maritime Silk Road".
But Mr Lee also noted that ASEAN-China relations extend beyond the economic sphere to cultural and political areas – with regular education and cultural exchanges, among others.
He welcomed the Plan of Action that will guide overall ASEAN-China cooperation in a range of areas for the next five years, as well as China’s proposal to hold a Commemorative Summit next year to mark 25 years of ASEAN-China Dialogue Relations and designate 2016 as the “Year of Educational Exchange”.
Mr Lee stressed that ASEAN-China relations are broad and deep, and should not be overshadowed by any one issue.
“As countries residing in a common neighbourhood, our interests are closely intertwined. China’s success benefits the region, and ASEAN member states have always welcomed China playing a positive role in the region. We want to continue building ASEAN-China relations, because China has contributed so much to regional peace and stability,” said Mr Lee.
He added that with close interaction, issues can be expected to arise every now and then, with some being difficult to resolve. “But what is important,” said Mr Lee, “is our ability to manage the issues calmly and constructively, without affecting the overall tone of our relationship.”
One such example is the South China Sea issue. China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei have overlapping claims in the territory.
“Since our last meeting, we have made progress on the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea and entered a ‘new phase’ of consultations. We look forward to fruitful discussions on the structure and elements of the COC and to an early conclusion of the COC,” said Mr Lee.
He also welcomed the agreement to pursue an extension of the observation of the Code of Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) to all parties’ naval vessels in the South China Sea, adding it should be extended to coast guard vessels as well.
Hotlines between foreign ministries should also be operationalised as soon as possible, to manage maritime emergencies, said Mr Lee.
Singapore has taken on the role of coordinator for ASEAN-China dialogue relations since August and Mr Lee said the Republic will be an “honest broker, objective and transparent to all parties”.
“We will also strive to enhance ASEAN-China relations and take it to a higher plane,” said Mr Lee.
“We start from a good basis. We have an open and inclusive regional architecture. We have avenues to improve exchanges and ties.”
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