WASHINGTON - Even amid sweeping geopolitical change around the world, the US presence in Asia Pacific remains critical for peace and stability in the region, Singapore's Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said on Wednesday (Dec 9).
Delivering a speech at an event organised by the Centre for a New American Security, the visiting minister stressed that Singapore continues to believe in the importance of US engagement in the region and urged the country to "continue to provide clear and consistent signals and commit physically to remain engaged in this region".
He said that the belief in the US role was part of the reason behind the enduring military ties between the two countries.
And to that end, Dr Ng said in an interview with the Singapore media that the decision to host a rotation of US P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft lends credibility to the US presence in the region.
"I can well imagine that if the US said, well I am signing an agreement and I didn’t deploy any assets, the counter reaction is well, 'is this a real agreement?' ", he said.
The week-long deployment of the surveillance aircraft to Singapore had been making headlines this week as experts debated the significance of the move to US posture in the South China Sea.
Dr Ng said the move must be seen in perspective.
"There are always going to be these reactions, but the larger picture I think, all the leaders understand that no relationship needs to be exclusive, that the common goals of regional stability are all shared. We can step up relationships with countries without having to diminish the importance or the depth of relationships with others. I think we are mature enough to understand that," he said.
In his speech on Wednesday, Dr Ng also stressed that stability in the region could not be ensured by the acts of the US alone, and that stakeholders in the region needed to build up strategic trust.
That meant confidence building measures and joint exercises among militaries in the region.
In the context of the South China Sea, he said it also meant all parties having to adhere to the Declaration of Conduct while a binding Code of Conduct is being negotiated.
He said: "It is hard to conceive trust in the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea when the Declaration of Conduct is not observed. Prolonged and unresolved South China Sea disputes will weaken strategic trust in the region."
Asked about extremism during the dialogue that followed, Dr Ng said radicalisation was a "clear and present danger" for the region.
He noted, for instance, that the number of sympathisers of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in South-east Asia in the last three years had exceeded the number of Al-Qaeda supporters in the region during the decade it was influential.
In recent months there have been reports of hundreds of foreign fighters from the region heading to join ISIS, including a handful from Singapore.
Dr Ng is wrapping up a five-day visit to Washington, DC, where he signed an enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement with US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter, and met a host of high-ranking US officials and congressmen.
He now heads to Arizona to visit the Exercise Forging Sabre that the Singapore military is conducting there.