Vital to stay neutral amid US-China spat: Ng Eng Hen

He also voices concern that trade impasse may lead to security tensions if not managed well

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen speaking at The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) CEO Council meeting in Tokyo yesterday with moderator and WSJ editor-at-large Gerard Baker.
Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen speaking at The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) CEO Council meeting in Tokyo yesterday with moderator and WSJ editor-at-large Gerard Baker.PHOTO: MINISTRY OF DEFENCE

No country should have to choose sides, Singapore's Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said yesterday, even as he acknowledged that neutrality appears increasingly difficult in such areas as technology, security alliances and business partnerships.

"If ever any of us is asked to choose, all sides lose," he told The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) CEO Council meeting in Tokyo.

"Even now with the 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, so it is very unproductive."

He was referring to the United States' restrictions on Huawei, which have led American tech firms like Google and Intel to shut the Chinese electronics giant out of their hardware, software and services.

Dr Ng is in Tokyo on a four-day working visit that ends tomorrow, during which he will meet his Japanese counterpart Takeshi Iwaya.

He was giving his take on the US-China rivalry at the forum, where he was interviewed by WSJ editor-at-large Gerard Baker.

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

Philippine undersecretary for national defence Cardozo Luna said at another 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 said that while China's growth has been positive for the Asia-Pacific, it was predictable that the US would pursue a containment policy, as China has achieved rapid growth despite not following the script of the Western liberal order.

This point was also made at a separate session by Mr James McGregor, the Beijing-based 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 floated by a senior US official, saying no one civilisation was superior to another.

Dr Ng voiced concern that the trade impasse may escalate into security tensions if not managed well.

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 the 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 framework, with Asean and eight regional nations, was important to build confidence and trust, he added.

Dr Ng did not identify any one country as the greatest risk to regional stability.

He disagreed with Mr Baker's suggestion that China wants dominion over the South China Sea, saying Asean and China have progressed on a Code of Conduct for the waterway. But an area of concern, he said, is a potential clash between China and Japan, which have overlapping air defence identification zones in the East China Sea.

Every year, Japan responds with more than 1,000 planes to Chinese intrusions, "but that is not in the newspapers", he said.

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

To defuse the threat of maritime conflict, both countries agreed last year to set up a security hotline amid warming ties.

The escalating feud over 5G technology between the US and Huawei 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 experts believe it is unlikely, in principle, that a tech company with sizeable market share would insert into the supply chain any instruments, chips or components that allow a back door.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 22, 2019, with the headline 'Vital to stay neutral amid US-China spat: Ng Eng Hen'. Print Edition | Subscribe