China must forge military bonds, not be isolationist, says Ng Eng Hen

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said history showed that China cannot be isolated from the world if it is to thrive. ST PHOTO: DANSON CHEONG

BEIJING - China's military leaders and their counterparts around the world must build rapport, understanding and confidence, as these ties would be useful to de-escalate tensions and prevent miscalculations, Singapore's Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen has said.

He added that this was essential, and should be done at various levels of the military.

"It is essential for our military leaders to build rapport, understanding and confidence through interactions at various levels. It is essential to build these personal ties that can prove very useful to de-escalate tensions and prevent miscalculations," he said.

Dr Ng, who was speaking at the opening plenary session on international security governance of the Xiangshan Forum in Beijing on Thursday (Oct 25), said history showed that China cannot be isolated from the world if it is to thrive.

He pointed out that China's decline from a great power began sometime after the 15th century, when it turned insular. In contrast, the country made astounding progress after beginning its economic liberalisation in 1978.

The country is now the world's biggest trading nation, with total trade amounting to some US$4.2 trillion (S$5.9 trillion), and has lifted more than 800 million people out of poverty since then.

"If there is any lesson to be drawn from these two Chinas - one in decline that started from the 15th century and one that is rising in the 21st century, it must be that even as large and venerable as China is, it needs the world, as much as the world needs China," said Dr Ng.

He added that China must help shape to maintain the world that it inhabits.

Dr Ng drew attention to the recently concluded Asean Defence Ministers' Meeting (ADMM) in Singapore, and its expanded platform the ADMM-Plus, as a "thriving example" of how China is helping to shape the common regional security architecture.

This was a group with "global reach", he said, representing 18 nations, four billion people and 90 per cent of the world's military.

As the current Asean chairman, Singapore hosted the annual summit this year, which includes the 10 Asean nations as well as defence chiefs from China, the United States, Russia, India, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea.

The ADMM-Plus platform began as a triennial summit in 2010, but Asean's partner countries proposed that the group meet more often, said Dr Ng.

"That defence ministers could and should meet regularly, exchanging views and ideas rather than bullets and missiles, is a modern concept and a virtuous one," he said.

Such interactions also included joint drills such as the ongoing Asean-China Maritime Exercise in Zhanjiang, Guangdong province.

"These frequent military-to-military and defence leadership interactions build trust and confidence that can lead to even more significant institutional ballasts," Dr Ng said.

He added that these should give countries encouragement to deal with difficult bilateral issues, citing China-US rivalry, tensions in the South China Sea and the nuclear threat on the Korean peninsula.

"When other agencies between states have disagreements, I think that those will be the exact situations in which defence ministries and their militaries must not only maintain but strengthen communications to maintain the peace and allow diplomatic initiatives time to take effect," he said.

China's assistant minister of foreign affairs Zhang Hanhui, Vietnam's defence minister General Ngo Xuan Lich, Serbia's defence minister Aleksandar Vulin and North Korea's vice minister of the People's Armed Forces Colonel General Kim Hyong Ryong were on the panel with Dr Ng at the plenary session.

The other panellists commented on a number of issues including upholding international rules and norms, safeguarding multilateralism and developments in the Korean peninsula.

Earlier, in his opening speech at the forum, China's defence minister Wei Fenghe pledged to deepen military cooperation with foreign countries, and said China will always be partners and a good friend with its neighbours.

"The Chinese military will always embrace the world with open arms," he said.

Dr Ng is in China for a five-day visit during which he also surveyed the ongoing Asean-China Maritime Exercise in Guangdong province. He is expected to meet General Xu Qiliang, vice-chair of the Central Military Commission on Friday (Oct 26) before departing Beijing.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.