Asia must learn right lessons from Ukraine at this dangerous point in history: Ng Eng Hen

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen speaking at the final plenary session at the three-day security summit on June 12, 2022. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

SINGAPORE - Asia must learn the right lessons from Ukraine and continue fostering peace, cooperation and economic interdependency to avoid disaster at a "potentially dangerous point in our history", said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen on Sunday (June 12).

"We must heed the passionate and poignant advice from President (Volodymyr) Zelensky for pre-emption and prevention - once conflict breaks out, devastation ensues and a cure may not be possible," said Dr Ng, referring to the Ukraine head of state, who on Saturday spoke virtually at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, appealing for tighter sanctions against the Russian regime, which invaded his country on Feb 24.

In a speech at the final plenary session at the three-day security summit, Dr Ng added: "All Asian countries have expressed respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity as a fundamental tenet, disputes notwithstanding - even as recently as after the invasion of Ukraine... We must ensure that our deeds match our words if we are to avoid a calamity like Ukraine."

The ongoing conflict in Europe has, alongside US-China tensions, been at the forefront of conference discussions, with United States Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin warning in a speech on Saturday that the Ukraine war was a sign of the chaos and turmoil that would come with the flouting of a rules-based international order.

On Sunday, Dr Ng described a world of deepened divides along existing fault lines shaped by the likes of ideology, alliances, culture, religion, wealth and public health, while noting the combined Covid-19 pandemic and war-induced "aftershocks" on inflation, supply chains and food exports, among others.

"Countries have turned more inward," said Dr Ng. "Security alliances are hardening. Despite protestations and caveats to the contrary, partners are positioning and building up security arrangements, if not military capability, among their groupings."

All these factors, conflated, present a more dangerous world since the defence summit was last held in 2019, said Dr Ng. The last two editions of the forum were scrapped due to Covid-19.

"The receding tide of global cooperation and goodwill have shown up naked ambition and vulnerabilities. How do we change trajectories and avert disaster?" he asked.

Ending the war in Ukraine would be a first step, he said.

"The Ukrainian leaders and people will eventually decide how this war ends, but a protracted conflict will exact a devastating toll on Ukraine, Russia and the world," said Dr Ng.

"Russia has made a strategic miscalculation for a quick and easy win over Ukraine. To further their objectives, they would need a significant build-up of soldiers and armaments. The financial toll will be exacting and conscription of Russians may not be possible without great political risks. For Ukraine, a protracted war will test the continued support of international leaders and incumbents... A cessation of hostilities would provide reprieve to all sides."

The next focus would be to "stop the contagion" and avert a physical confrontation in Asia, he noted.

"If new problems arise in Asia to compound the situation in Europe, worst-case scenarios are in play," said Dr Ng, pointing to existing security hot spots and disputes in the South China Sea and Korean peninsula and at Sino-Indian borders as examples.

"But for Asia, we should make clear what the core issues are not about. It is not an ideological struggle between autocracies and democracies. Characterisations and labels aside, Asian countries are too diverse and pluralistic and there would be few takers for a battle royal to ensue on that basis."

The core issue in the region is an interdependency far more developed, productive and mutually beneficial than seen with Russia and Europe, said the minister, citing China's role as the top trading partner of almost all Asian countries.

On the security front, Asia must strengthen existing establishments like the Asean Defence Ministers' Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus), a dialogue between Asean and Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia and the US.

It must also step up engagements within and with other extra-regional powers, said Dr Ng.

"Building confidence and strategic trust in one another is the core of pre-emption. We must continue to emphasise inclusivity and multilateralism," he urged. "The ADMM-Plus can continue to set norms and establish mechanisms to de-escalate and avert conflict."

Addressing the world leaders and senior defence officials in attendance, Dr Ng concluded: "I hope that this Shangri-La Dialogue would have deepened your convictions and recharged your energies to keep our world and countries safe and free. If that was achieved, then that will be the ultimate value to all of us."

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