Promoting free trade is a critical matter that affects security for the world, Singapore's Second Minister for Defence Ong Ye Kung said at an international security conference in Russia yesterday.
"We will do well in promoting free trade even if it is two steps forward and one step back, but we should still push on because global peace and stability depends on it," he said.
In his speech, Mr Ong cast the rise of protectionism around the world as a major threat to the peace and prosperity of South-east Asia, which is home to key global shipping lanes.
But Asean - which Singapore is chairing this year - can be of value to the world by helping to engage global powers, said Mr Ong at the annual Moscow Conference on International Security.
The 10-member grouping can be relevant because of its steadfast commitment to constructively talk to all parties, and its cautiousness in taking sides, he added.
"Because of these, Asean serves as a non-threatening and neutral platform for engagement among global powers with a stake in the peace and security of the Asia-Pacific," he said, citing the East Asia Summit and Asean Defence Ministers' Meeting-Plus.
"Russia is an important member of (both), and we look forward to its continued participation in these Asean-centred fora," he added.
In the case of free trade, Asean has proactively facilitated open trade with various partners, and worked hard in connecting major powers and catalysing regional economic cooperation, said Mr Ong.
For instance, Asean is spearheading the 16-member Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership currently being negotiated with China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
Four Asean members - Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam - are also part of the reworked Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for TPP, signed last month.
Mr Ong also pitched Singapore as a "good and low-risk partner" for any country pushing for economic reforms and liberalisation to talk to, because it is a small country that does not pose a threat to vulnerable industries of other countries.
Mr Ong was speaking at a session titled Asia: Regional Security Aspects, during which issues such as the Korean peninsula situation and collective responses to emerging challenges were also discussed.
He called the security situations on the Korean peninsula and in the East and South China seas potential regional flashpoints which were "susceptible to miscalculation and potential conflict". However, the situation has calmed down as key players are ready to negotiate, he noted.
"Negotiations will no doubt be long drawn and complex, but better jaw-jaw than war-war," he added.
"All stakeholder nations in the East and South China seas wish to be assured of the freedom of navigation and overflight, so that we can continue to progress economically and improve the lives of our peoples," said Mr Ong.