US keen to play 'very constructive role' in the region

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Singapore's Minister of Defence Ng Eng Hen met for the first time at the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany.
US Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Singapore's Minister of Defence Ng Eng Hen met for the first time at the Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany.PHOTO: NG ENG HEN/FACEBOOK

Pentagon chief tells Ng Eng Hen he values defence ties with S'pore

The United States has indicated that it wants to play a "very constructive role" in the Asia- Pacific region.

This was told to Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen by the new US Secretary of Defence James Mattis yesterday, on the sidelines of a security conference in Germany.

Both ministers, who were having their first bilateral meeting since Mr Mattis was sworn in to his post last month, discussed the new US administration's foreign and security policies, particularly the importance of the US' engagement in the Asia-Pacific region.

Dr Ng said he was reassured by Mr Mattis' remarks about how he values the defence relationship with Singapore and security in the Asia-Pacific region.

"He valued our views and our assessment of our region, and (indicated) that the US wanted to play a very constructive role," said Dr Ng after the meeting. He added that Mr Mattis was open to hearing Singapore's assessment.

The new US administration under President Donald Trump has not revealed much about its policy towards the region, leaving observers wondering if it may reverse former US president Barack Obama's "pivot" towards Asia. Singapore leaders see the US as an important power that contributes to peace and stability in the region.

During their meeting, Dr Ng and Mr Mattis reaffirmed the "excellent and longstanding" bilateral defence ties, said the Ministry of Defence in a statement yesterday.

Mr Mattis said he appreciates Singapore's support of the US' presence in Asia-Pacific, and Singapore's contributions to the US-led coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Mindef added. Singapore was the first South-east Asian nation to join the coalition, which began operations in 2014. Since then, ISIS has lost over half its territory in Iraq and a quarter in Syria.

Dr Ng said he had worked closely with Mr Mattis' predecessors, and looks forward to working with him to further cooperation in defence.

In remarks after the meeting, he added he was very reassured Mr Mattis knows the region well. Mr Mattis had visited Singapore in 2008 and met Dr Ng then.

Later, as head of the US Central Command overseeing military activity in the Middle East, Mr Mattis also had a meeting with Singapore Armed Forces leaders, during which "there was great mutual respect engendered", said Dr Ng.

Dr Ng has invited Mr Mattis to the Shangri-La Dialogue, and the US Defence Secretary has accepted.

"All in all, (we had) a very good first meeting. One that gives reassurance of stability and progress, and (a) very steady pair of hands in Secretary Mattis' leadership."

He added: "I hope that we have moved things towards a much more predictable and stable environment that we all hope for."

He also said he appreciates how Mr Mattis made time to meet despite his busy schedule at the Munich Security Conference.

Yesterday, Dr Ng also held meetings with Swiss Defence Minister Guy Parmelin and British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon.

He also met Ms Fu Ying, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People's Congress of China, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, and Turkish Defence Minister Fikri Isik.

This is Dr Ng's sixth time at the annual conference held since 1963. Speaking at a roundtable, he said the anti-globalisation backlash heralded a new world order. Nations could unite around the common challenges it brings, although "history reminds us that in the absence of a global order and common cause, the default is regional hegemony, and each region basically marches to its own tune", he added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 19, 2017, with the headline 'US keen to play 'very constructive role' in the region'. Print Edition | Subscribe