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Fishermen, coast guards worry Singapore most in South China Sea

[SINGAPORE] The risk of a clash in the South China Sea lies with non-military ships, Minister for Defence Ng Eng Hen said, as China deploys more heavily armed coast guard vessels in the disputed waters.

Singapore has joined other nations in the region and the US in warning the reliance on fishing boats and coast guards to assert territorial claims in the South China Sea raises the prospect of an incident.

China has used its so-called white hull fleet to chase and shoo ships including fishing boats from other countries away from the reefs it claims.

A practical concern for nations whose ships travel through the area - it's a key shipping lane that carries as much as US$5 trillion in trade a year - is how to develop processes to defuse incidents as they occur, Dr Ng told reporters on the sidelines of a meeting of South-east Asian and US defense ministers in Hawaii.

"It may have, in fact, very little to do with military ships" given an agreed code in place for navies, he said. "But you may have incidents arising from fishing, you may have incidents arising from white ships," Dr Ng said.

"Whatever colour ships they are, they can precipitate incidents."

Singapore is not a claimant in the South China Sea, and Dr Ng said China is "not a threat to us".

Still, it has called for a reduction in tensions and for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to take a more united approach to resolving the disputes.

The South China Sea has become a flashpoint for the broader tussle between China and the US for influence in the western Pacific as President Xi Jinping seeks to build his country into a regional power.

"We are interested in the South China Sea because it is a major shipping route, and a lot of economies depend on it," Dr Ng said. "We think that uncertainty may lead to incidents."

China's assertions cross over those of nations including Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia, and it has reclaimed thousands of acres in the waters in recent years, adding airstrips and fighter jets. An arbitration court in the Hague in July ruled in favour of a Philippine challenge to China's territorial claims, but that has not deterred China from continuing to beef up its presence in the waters.

Ministers in Hawaii talked about how to prevent an escalation in tensions and how to keep communication open, Dr Ng said.

"We talked about forums at which we can bring up disputes," he said. "We talked about how we can resolve disputes." Still, recent meetings of Asean foreign ministers or leaders have failed to take a tough stance on the disputes. Asean statements have not mentioned China by name, while expressing concern about developments in the South China Sea.

Asean operates on consensus and it only takes one member state to disagree for a statement to be torpedoed. A meeting of foreign ministers in China in June ended in confusion after Malaysia released and then retracted a joint Asean statement that cited China for the first time over its behaviour.

Observers said at the time that smaller states like Cambodia could be swayed by Chinese pressure.

That has led several Asean states to publicly call for greater unity for the bloc, amid concerns about its effectiveness going forward.

The South China Sea is a "problem of positions", Dr Ng said. Still, "we have often said that whether you are claimants or non-claimants, whether you are China, US or other countries, I think there is wisdom in the system to understand what it is you are really fighting over. I do not see it as an immediate threat."