All powers welcome to operate in international waterways to maintain region's security: Ng Eng Hen

Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen listening during a meeting at the Asean Defence Ministers Meeting, on Nov 3, 2015.
Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen listening during a meeting at the Asean Defence Ministers Meeting, on Nov 3, 2015. PHOTO: AFP

KUALA LUMPUR - All powers that want to contribute to the security of the region are welcome to operate in international waterways, Singapore's Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said on Wednesday (Nov 4), after concerns were raised regarding the United States' plan to conduct regular patrols in the highly contentious South China Sea area.

Dr Ng told reporters that Singapore is consistent in its position on international waters and recognises that the users and stakeholders of the world's waterways have a responsibility to contribute to their security.

"We (Singapore) welcome the presence of all those who add to it (the security of the region)," Dr Ng said in a press conference in Kuala Lumpur after paying a courtesy call to Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.

He revealed that Singapore, as well as the 17 other nations involved in the Asean Defence Ministers Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus) which concluded on Wednesday have expressed their respect for freedom of navigation and international laws, including in the South China Sea, although the countries' interpretations of the laws varied.

Tensions have risen in the region over disputed territories in the South China Sea after US sailed a warship near one of China's man-made islands last week. Four Asean states, namely Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei have rival claims in the area.

Dr Ng added that he was satisfied with the outcome of the ADMM-Plus meeting as there has been significant progress in the dialogue since its inception in 2010, even though the ministers did not sign a joint declaration on Wednesday.

Dr Ng explained that some disagreements in terms of phrasing and interpretation had caused Asean member states to decide not to sign the joint declaration but stressed that this was common in any agreement.

He said: "The very fact that we couldn't agree on a joint declaration is not necessarily a bad thing. It recognises that there are different considerations, different points of views even in South China Sea, and for individual countries to at least take note of the different views.

"To get 18 Defence Ministers to agree on everything all the time is probably not a true reflection of world affairs. What is important is that we go back, reflect and respect the views (raised by other nations) and see how we can find common ground."

He believed Asean will be able to find other avenues to resolve differences over territorial claims.

He also suggested expanding the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) to include white shipping (civilian ships), and for ADMM-Plus to adopt a similar protocol for the air.

As part of the ADMM-Plus programme, Dr Ng also held bilateral meetings with the Defence Ministers of India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, New Zealand, and United States. He was joined by Permanent Secretary for Defence Chan Yeng Kit.

euniceau@sph.com.sg