SINGAPORE - Australia Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on Friday (June 2) called for the region to uphold a rules-based order and also urged fast-rising China to help build trust by using its leverage to rein in a belligerent North Korea.
"China will play a larger role in shaping the region...we want to see China take charge in a way that would strengthen the regional order," Mr Turnbull said at the opening of the 16th Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.
"China would best succeed by respecting the sovereignty of its neighbours," he added, alluding to China's aggessive moves in the disputed South China Sea, including land reclamation and the installation of military facilities on reefs.
Conversely, he said, "a coercive China would find its neighbours resenting demands they cede their autonomy and strategic space, and look to counterweight Bejing's power by bolstering alliances and partnerships, between themselves and especially with the United States".
He called on Beijing to build trust in the region by using its considerable influence over North Korea, whose dozen missile tests this year - most recently on Monday - have rattled the region, especially US allies Japan and South Korea.
Mr Turnbull was giving the keynote speech at the annual meeting of Asia-Pacific defence and security leaders organised by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and hosted by Singapore.
This year, some 22 ministerial-level delegates, 12 chiefs of defence force, and academics from 39 countries as well as defence industry executives have gathered at the Shangri-La Hotel for the three-day event.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his wife Ho Ching also attended the opening on Friday night.
Big fish, small fish, shrimp
Mr Turnbull, 62, began his speech with a reference to Singapore's late Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Mr Lee's resolve to safeguard Singapore's security when the then-colonial power of Britain withdrew its troops "East of Suez" in the late 1960s showed how small countries can defend itself, said the Australian leader.
"Your nation and your father Lee Kuan Yew keenly understood strategic stability does not happen by itself," said Mr Turnbull, addressing PM Lee.
"He (Lee Kuan Yew) spoke about the strategic environment and cited the old Chinese saying 'Big fish eat small fish and small fish eat shrimps'."
Mr Lee, noted Mr Turnbull, prescribed how "shrimp" such as Singapore would survive: It would make itself unpalatable to larger fish by being self-reliant and strong and making alliances with larger nations.
"He recognised that we all have a vested interest in each other's security," said the Australian Prime Minister.
"For the shrimp, the little fish and even the middle-to-large sized fish represented here today, we face more than a Manichean choice between life and death, war and peace. The more salient question is...what kind of peace can we maintain?"
The forum is expected to be dominated by concern over China's sustained aggressive presence in the South China Sea, as well as doubts about the Donald Trump administration's commitment to the region and America's resolve to uphold the post-World War II global order, especially in the face of an increasingly confrontational North Korea.
China has ignored the Hague-based Law of the Sea Arbitral Tribunal’s 2016 ruling refuting Beijing's claims to some 90 per cent of the waterway, which hosts a vital international shipping route and is also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei.
This year, China’s participation at the Shangri-La Dialogue has been downgraded. The Chinese delegation will be led by Lieutenant-General He Lei, vice-president of the Academy of Military Sciences. The last time China sent an official at this level was back in 2012.
US Secretary of Defence James Mattis told reporters as he arrived in Singapore earlier on Friday for the Shangri-La Dialogue that he would talk about the “international order” needed for a peaceful Asia, a reference to countering North Korea’s nuclear and missile programme, Reuters reported.
“At the Shangri-La dialogue I will emphasise the United States stands with our Asia-Pacific allies and partners,” Mattis, who is due to speak on Saturday at the Dialogue's first plenary session, told reporters.
“The Department of Defence is focused on strengthening alliances, empowering countries to be able to sustain their own security, and strengthening US military capabilities to deter war."
Australia has traditionally been wary of upsetting China, its largest trading partner. It takes no sides in the disputes in the South China Sea and has declined to join naval exercises there, although it does support US-led freedom of navigation activities in the region.
Mr Turnbull on Friday sounded a tougher note. Without name any country, he called for nations to respect the sovereignty of neighbours large and small.
"This means respecting rules and sometimes, to compromise," he said.
Mr Turnbull is in Singapore for his first official visit to the Republic since taking office in September 2015.
He called on President Tony Tan Keng Yam earlier on Friday and met Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong for the 2nd Singapore-Australia Leaders’ Summit, during which they took stock of wide-ranging cooperation under the two-year-old Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP), and reiterated Singapore and Australia’s commitment to deepen and expand bilateral collaboration, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement.
They also signed memorandums of understanding on cyber security cooperation and furthering scientific cooperation.