Singapore will take the lead role in formulating a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan has said.
Balakrishnan added that Singapore has its "work cut out" as the coordinator of Asean-China relations in the backdrop of simmering tensions in the disputed waters.
The minister was speaking after the Asean foreign ministers' meeting in Vientiane, Laos.
He said the Association of Southeast Asian Nations stressed on the need to have peace and stability in the region. While all parties to the dispute must exercise restraint, there should also be an adherence to a rules-based world order, the minister said.
"Singapore's not a claimant state. Nevertheless, because we are a small country, we have to firmly adhere with the concept of a rules-based world order. In other words, we cannot have a world in which might is right," he said.
The South China Sea dispute came to the fore in recent weeks with China deploying missile batteries and fighter jets to the Paracel island chain and the US holding a summit of Asean leaders in a move to brace up against the Chinese dominance in the region.
"Clearly with developments which are going on on the ground in the South China Sea right now, this is an area of concern. I think we will have to continue this discussion with China. It is something which we are going to have to work very hard on," Balakrishnan said.
The foreign minister is travelling to China, where he will take up the issue of laying down rules of engagement in the South China Sea.
"One area that we are going to focus very much on is on the formulation of the Code of Conduct. All these are steps which will hopefully de-escalate tension and prevent any accidents or inadvertent escalation of tensions and incidents at sea. So I am afraid that we have our work cut out for us," Balakrishnan said.
The overlapping claims of sovereignty over two island chains by China, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei has made the South China Seas a sensitive region.
The mostly uninhabited islands in South China Sea are of crucial strategic importance. The two major island chains -- the Paracels and the Spratlys -- are thought to harbour natural resources around them. China hopes the oil and natural gas reserves in the region could ensure its energy security.
For energy hungry China the sea routes in South China Sea are crucial as most of its imported oil flows through these routes.
Control over the territory allows Beijing to prevent the US from expanding its sphere of influence in the region.
China this month deployed two batteries of eight surface-to-air missile launchers and a radar system on Woody Island in the Paracels, which is claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam. Again in the last week, China sent fighter jets to an island in the disputed island chain.
Chinese Shenyang J-11 and Xian JH-7 warplanes were spotted on Woody Island over the past few days, FOX News reported, citing US officials.
The fighter sorties were reported even as a senior US commander said Beijing is "changing the operational landscape" in the South China Sea by its aggressive military actions.
China's defence activities in the disputed waters coincided with a summit President Barack Obama was holding with the Asean leaders, where he called for action to ensure freedom of navigation and a peaceful resolution of the maritime conflicts in the South China Sea.