Beijing's leadership role key to Asian stability: Eng Hen

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen (right) and China’s Defence Minister Chang Wanquan (left, front row) at the inaugural China-Asean defence ministers’ informal meeting in Beijing on Oct 16, 2015.
Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen (right) and China’s Defence Minister Chang Wanquan (left, front row) at the inaugural China-Asean defence ministers’ informal meeting in Beijing on Oct 16, 2015. PHOTO: MINDEF

S'pore minister notes China's initiatives, says territorial rows should not block goal to build security architecture

Singapore "fully supports China's leadership to promote stability and security in Asia" and hopes it could yield more initiatives, such as the newly inked pact between Chinese and American militaries to prevent dangerous aerial encounters, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said at a security dialogue in Beijing.

He also told his regional counterparts that "effective cooperation on security issues and nationalistic sentiments are not mutually exclusive" and that "disputes on territories or resources should not obstruct the common goal to build a stable and inclusive security architecture".

"The stakes are too high, if we should fail to create a stable security environment that is conducive for future progress and prosperity," said Dr Ng yesterday at the Xiangshan Forum, which is billed as China's version of the Shangri-La Dialogue held yearly in Singapore.

Such sentiments, he added, were articulated by Chinese President Xi Jinping during his visit to the United States last month. Mr Xi had said that "China is ready to work with other countries to build a new type of international relations" that replaces confrontation and domination with win-win cooperation and proposes "a new vista of common development and shared security".

Soon after, Beijing and Washington inked pacts on air-to-air safety and crisis communications that built on other confidence-building measures reached last November, pointed out Dr Ng.

"We will need more of these initiatives and Singapore supports China's leadership to promote stability and security in Asia," he said during a panel discussion at the three- day event that began on Friday.

Speaking to the media later, Dr Ng said he was not stating an aspiration, but a fact, as China is already a regional security leader based on "its very heft and strategic weight".

Asked about perceptions that it was premature to voice support for China's security leadership role given concerns over its actions in the South China Sea, Dr Ng said it is not productive to look at isolated incidents as there could be many other incidents from other countries.

"What's required is to increase mutual trust between countries, within Asean, and between Asean and partners, and to evolve practical measures that we can resort to," he added.

China and four Asean states - Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei - have overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea, where tensions have escalated over Beijing's land reclamation, which is turning reefs into islands, and also Manila's taking of its dispute with China to an international court.

It is important to have "workable measures" so that day-to-day activities can proceed and get assurance of stability despite disputes, said Dr Ng, adding that this is what Singapore wants to spend more time facilitating in its role as coordinator of Asean-China relations.

In this light, Dr Ng said it was a good outcome that China had proposed several confidence-building initiatives at the inaugural two-day informal meeting of Asean defence ministers hosted by Chinese Defence Minister Chang Wanquan.

These include joint naval drills between China and Asean to cope with unplanned encounters on the sea, and search and rescue operations, in which Dr Ng said Singapore hopes to include fishing vessels later as most incidents involve them.

He said he was also cheered by General Chang's remarks about China's intent to settle incidents peacefully, specifically in the South China Sea. "I think the desire and recognition that the South China Sea is too important an area for all of us to have any uncertainties is key. Obviously, for the militaries, we should work out processes and procedures to reduce conflict and tensions."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 18, 2015, with the headline 'Beijing's leadership role key to Asian stability: Eng Hen'. Print Edition | Subscribe