Settle South China Sea disputes or risk future of economic "promise": Ng Eng Hen

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen on Tuesday cautioned Asian-Pacific nations against "getting it wrong" by escalating tensions or starting confrontations in dealing with ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Speaking at the opening of this year's International Maritime Defence Exhibition & Conference (Imdex) Asia, he said that the region ran the risk of foregoing a "great promise" of continued trade and economic growth if disputes were not settled according to international law, adding that it could be an "engine of global growth" that the world badly needs in an uncertain economy.

Dr Ng drew attention to the conflict-ridden past in Asian-Pacific waters during World War Two and before, urging nations to "exercise maximum restraint" and not let history repeat itself.

He said: "If we do it right, the next decade can hold great promises and great fulfillment for all of us. But if we get it wrong, if we go back to the era which I've painted, it may be missed golden opportunities."

The minister was speaking to about 30 navy chiefs and coast guard heads from the region and beyond at Imdex Asia, held at Changi Exhibition Centre. The three-day event begins today.

China has claimed sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, including over the hotly-contested Spratly and Paracel island chains.

But Taiwan and Asean members Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have also laid claim to portions of the territory.

Just last week, the Philippine Coast Guard fatally shot a Taiwanese fisherman in waters between the two nations, drawing condemnation from both Taiwan and China. Manila claimed that its coast guard had opened fire in self-defence.