Defence build-up in Asia Pacific could be powder keg: Ng Eng Hen

A huge build-up in defence and military forces in the Asia-Pacific region is taking place amidst a dearth of institutions and channels for major Asian countries to communicate with one another, warned Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
A huge build-up in defence and military forces in the Asia-Pacific region is taking place amidst a dearth of institutions and channels for major Asian countries to communicate with one another, warned Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen. -- PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE- The build-up of defence and military forces in the Asia-Pacific region is taking place amidst a dearth of institutions and channels for countries to communicate with one another, warned Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen at an international security conference yesterday.

This has the worrying potential to create a powder keg situation in the region, especially since there is no shared historical conviction among Asian countries against military conflict, like in Europe.

But Dr Ng, speaking at the annual Munich Security Conference in Germany, said that there are several defusing factors that give cause for optimism. These include growing trade links among Asia-Pacific countries and the rise of an Asian middle class that would not support hegemonic aspirations.

Dr Ng was appearing on a panel alongside four other speakers: Chinese vice-minister of Foreign Affairs Liu Zhen Min, Japanese vice-minister of Foreign Affairs Minoru Kiuchi, Korean Chairman of the National Defence Committee Jin Ha Hwang and former United States under-secretary for Defense policy Michèle Flournoy.

The Munich Security Conference is an annual gathering that attracts an array of world leaders and defence experts.

In his speech, Dr Ng noted that defence spending in Asia has risen astronomically to US$400 billion, surpassing that of Nato and Europe. In the last decade, China's defence spending has risen by 170 per cent and Southeast Asia's by 150 per cent.

While much of this is justifiable as Asian countries are playing "catch up," he said that it was worrying that there exists "no well-developed security architecture in which this military modernisation and increased defence spending is taking place."

"It is well known that leaders of countries in Northeast Asia do not talk to each other much," he said, specifically pointing to China, Japan, North Korea and Taiwan.

But on the positive side, Dr Ng pointed to growing trade links and prosperity as reasons for optimism.