Defence minister Ng Eng Hen stresses neutrality amid US-China dispute on Tokyo visit

Singapore's Minister for Defence Ng Eng Hen (right) speaking with Wall Street Journal editor-at-large Gerard Baker, at the Wall Street Journal CEO Council Tokyo Meeting on May 21, 2019. PHOTO: MINISTRY OF DEFENCE, SINGAPORE

TOKYO - No country should have to choose sides, Singapore's Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said here on Tuesday (May 21), even as he acknowledged that neutrality appears increasingly difficult in such areas as technology, security alliances and business partnerships.

"If ever any of us are asked to choose, all sides lose," he told the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) CEO Council meeting. "Even now with the current uncertainty for businesses, the fact that you have to hedge whether to leave your factories in China or take them out of China (affects) your supply lines.

"Even American businesses lose because they are supplying component parts to Huawei and everybody has to go back and have another ledger perhaps, think how they are going to do this, and so it is very unproductive."

Dr Ng was referring to the US government's restrictions on the Chinese electronics giant that have led American tech companies, including Google and Intel, to shut it out of their hardware, software and services.

Dr Ng, who is on a four-day working visit to Tokyo until May 23, was giving his take on the United States-China rivalry at the forum, during which he was interviewed by the WSJ editor-at-large Gerard Baker.

The ongoing tensions between the world's two largest economic superpowers loomed large at the conference.

Philippine undersecretary for national defence Cardozo Luna said in a separate session: "As far as our relationship with other countries, including China, is concerned, we have to manage this in such a way that it is constructive and beneficial not just for us - but also for others in the region."

Dr Ng, who will meet his Japanese counterpart Takeshi Iwaya during his visit, said that while China's growth has been positive for the Asia Pacific, it was predictable the US would pursue a containment policy as China has not followed the script of the Western liberal order in achieving faster growth than the West.

This point was also made at a separate session by Beijing-based James McGregor, who is chairman for Greater China at consultancy Apco Worldwide. "The West has been very arrogant in thinking that China can never be prosperous because it does not have democratic and open information systems."

Chinese President Xi Jinping last week hit back at the "clash of civilisations" theory that was floated recently by a senior US official, saying that no one civilisation was superior to another.

Dr Ng expressed concern that the trade impasse may escalate into security tensions if not managed properly. Unlike Europe, Asia does not have institutions that were formed after wars, nor the "collective 'never again' mentality", he pointed out.

"Back during the Cold War, the number of interactions between US and Russia far outstrips that between US and China," he said. "The militaries of US, China and Korea talk much less than the antagonists and protagonists in the European Union, and to me that spells risk."

This was why the Asean Defence Ministers Meeting-Plus (ADMM+) framework comprising Asean and eight regional countries was important to build confidence and trust, he added, though there is still a lot of ground to make up in preventing miscalculations or mishaps.

The minister did not identify any one country as the greatest risk to regional stability, which, he said, will be upset by "intemperate action depending on the mood of the day".

He disagreed with Mr Baker's suggestion that China is eyeing dominion of the South China Sea, noting that Asean and China have made headway in a Code of Conduct over the waterway, through which US$3.4 trillion in global trade passes annually.

One area of concern to Dr Ng, however, is a clash between China and Japan, noting that both neighbours have overlapping air defence identification zones in the East China Sea. This refers to the area covered by an early warning system that allows a country to detect potential incursions into its sovereign airspace.

He said that every year Japan responds with more than 1,000 planes to Chinese intrusions, "but that is not in the newspapers and that doesn't show up".

He added: "Our preoccupations are sometimes shaped by perceptions and I worry far more about other events than I do the South China Sea."

Still, to avoid accidental skirmishes and to defuse the threat of maritime conflict - including in areas around their disputed islets in the East China Sea - both countries agreed last year to set up a security hotline amid warming ties.

Trade and military tensions aside, the escalating feud over 5G technology between the US and Huawei, the world's biggest manufacturer of telecommunications equipment, also came under the spotlight.

Dr Ng declined to comment when asked by Mr Baker if Singapore shares the US' intelligence and defence assessment that Huawei equipment poses a security threat.

But he did say that experts believe it is unlikely, in principle, that a technological company with sizeable market share will insert into the supply chain such instruments, chips or components that allow a backdoor.

"The difficulty is in detecting these components; we're in the security business and if you want to analyse one motherboard for such a component it will take quite a long time," he said. "So this is a theoretical threat that is made more difficult because it is very hard to disprove."

Current lapses, such as the proliferation of fake news and hacking, have occurred on 3G and 4G networks, he pointed out, adding: "There is one view of companies like Huawei, that it is not so much that they have these components but that to be competitive, they may pay less attention to security requirements - which you can fix as an industrial standard."

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