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Singapore will be an honest broker as chair of Asean: Vivian Balakrishnan

[SINGAPORE] AS chairman of Asean this year, Singapore will be an honest broker in tackling major challenges and potential crises, said Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan.

"We call it as it is, we don't sugarcoat things and we don't stick our heads in the sand, but at the same time we don't just complain or highlight that there's a problem, we actively look for solutions," he said.

"And even if we can't have a complete solution, we at least don't make it worse. We try to explore at least some preliminary steps which can improve the situation."

Dr Balakrishnan was speaking in an interview with The Straits Times on Monday, before Asean foreign ministers gather here for a retreat from Sunday to Tuesday.

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As Asean chair, Singapore will help broker talks on a Code of Conduct (COC) on the South China Sea. The talks start formally this year after Asean and China agreed on a framework for the code last year.

Dr Balakrishnan said the South China Sea situation is "much more calm now", and added he does not want to put a deadline on the code.

"The whole point of the COC is that it's not going to resolve the competing or overlapping claims, but it is meant to maintain the peace, prevent accidents, prevent misunderstandings and to prevent escalation to a situation that nobody wants to get into," he said.

China has overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea with four Asean states - Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Brunei.

Dr Balakrishnan said the relationship between China and Asean should not be seen only through the lens of territorial disputes.

Instead, it is "one aspect of a much broader, deeper and mutually beneficial relationship".

During the hour-long interview, Dr Balakrishnan was also asked about developments in Asean countries, including the upcoming general election in Malaysia this year.

Asked if there would be an impact on the dynamics within Asean should the opposition alliance led by former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad win, he said Singapore has to work with whoever is the government of the day.

As for the crisis in Myanmar's Rakhine state, he said it would not be amenable to "a quick fix".

Nearly 700,000 Rohingya refugees have fled the country's Rakhine state to Bangladesh after an Aug 25 militant attack triggered a military crackdown on these Muslim minorities. Dr Balakrishnan said he did not think "grandstanding and loud political pronouncements" are useful in resolving the crisis.

Before any move, he would ask: "Is it stopping the violence? Is it making a positive step towards a political solution? Or is it delivering humanitarian assistance?"

Noting the stand-off between the military and militants in the southern Philippine city of Marawi last year, he said the last thing South-east Asia needs is "another focal point where extremism and violence and terrorism takes root".

"So it is a clear and present danger not just to Myanmar but indeed to all of us," he said.

There are steps towards progress, he noted. Myanmar and Bangladesh - where many refugees now live - have committed to beginning a repatriation process.

On a strategic level, he said Asean faces four key challenges: the changing global balance of power, the digital revolution, the fraying of the consensus on free trade, and constant pulls and tugs on Asean's unity.

Powers such as China, India and the United States have looked to advance their political and economic interests in the region.

Asean should be glad it is relevant to the major powers, he said, noting that the regional bloc has much growth potential over the next two to three decades.

Managing relations between Asean and the major powers will mean building an "inclusive, open regional architecture", he added.

Asean wants to have good relations with all major and emerging powers, and not be forced to choose sides, the minister said.

Within Asean itself, consensus is key, he added. A consensus instead of a simple majority voting procedure is needed as Asean consists of 10 very different states, he said. Going by consensus gives everyone the assurance that their interests will not be overridden.

"And although it may mean that things take longer to evolve, what it does mean is that when consensus is achieved, you know that it has the support of everyone and you can make progress," he added.

Given the challenges for Singapore as Asean chair, has the Foreign Minister had sleepless nights?

"I'm a surgeon," said the former eye specialist with a smile.

"The most important thing, I tell my colleagues here, for both diplomats and for surgeons, is the ability to sleep. Fall asleep quickly whenever you can so that you have the energy to deal with the challenges or the crises that will erupt."

THE STRAITS TIMES

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