US requires greater economic presence in Asia-Pacific: Ng Eng Hen

Dr Ng congratulating Mr Carter on receiving the Ronald Reagan Peace Through Strength Award.
Dr Ng congratulating Mr Carter on receiving the Ronald Reagan Peace Through Strength Award.PHOTO: FACEBOOK PAGE OF DR NG ENG HEN

Ng Eng Hen says its security policies should be complemented by more trade, commerce links

The presence of the United States in the Asia-Pacific cannot be solely for containing China, perceived or otherwise, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen has told US officials at a forum in California.

It is neither possible nor strategically necessary to contain China's rise, he said, citing its position as an integral leader of global systems of trade, finance and security, and the US' largest goods trading partner.

Besides its economic initiatives, China has the second largest defence spending behind the US, and the People's Liberation Army participates in many global peacekeeping operations, noted Dr Ng.

"It is clear that China needs the world as much as the world needs China, and I think this interdependence will grow, not diminish," he said at the annual Reagan National Defence Forum in Simi Valley, California, yesterday.

Participants included US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter, US national security officials and members of Congress as well as defence officials from countries such as Britain.

THE CHINA FACTOR

It is clear that China needs the world as much as the world needs China, and I think this interdependence will grow, not diminish.

DEFENCE MINISTER NG ENG HEN

Given that the US' presence in the Asia-Pacific is based predominantly on security - which is "uni- dimensional and structurally brittle" - the US must also develop a greater economic presence in the region, Dr Ng said.

As the US plans to base 60 per cent of its naval and air power in the Pacific by 2020, security policies must be complemented by the expansion of US trade and commerce links to ensure that it remains a dominant economic power, he said.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership - a free trade pact whose signatories include Singapore, Japan and the US - would have been a concrete, tangible commitment to this, he said.

But US President-elect Donald Trump has said he will scrap it in favour of "fair bilateral trade deals that bring jobs and industry back onto American shores".

The US needs a multifaceted relationship with countries in Asia, and Singapore looks forward to working with the new administration to continue to allow the US to be a stabilising force in the region, said Dr Ng.

On Mr Trump's phone call with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen last Friday, Dr Ng said it is not Singapore's place to second-guess Mr Trump's reason for the call.

The call shocked many and triggered a protest from Beijing as the US had cut formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1979 and recognises Beijing as the government of "one China", while keeping friendly non-official ties with Taipei.

Like the US, Singapore adheres to the "one China" policy, and has played a role in improving cross- strait ties, said Dr Ng, noting the historic meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and then Taiwanese leader Ma Ying-jeou in Singapore last year.

"I think we ought to have a larger strategic interest in mind... There are a lot of benefits of a strong China," said Dr Ng.

Turning to the terror threat in South-east Asia, Dr Ng said that, paradoxically, as the situation in Iraq and Syria improves, the wave of fighters expected to return to South-east Asia would make things worse in the region.

Singapore's neighbours have reported foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria, including more than 700 from Indonesia and about 300 from Malaysia. Southern Philippines and parts of Indonesia are geographically easy to house terror training camps, he said.

So Singapore will continue to contribute to the fight against terror.

Dr Ng met Mr Carter and members of the US Congress on the sidelines of the forum, which brings together leaders and key players in the defence community to address national security issues.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 05, 2016, with the headline 'US requires 'greater economic presence' in Asia-Pacific'. Print Edition | Subscribe