ZHANJIANG, GUANGDONG - China and Asean should hold more and bigger exercises in the future to build up mutual confidence, said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen on Tuesday (Oct 23) of the way forward for the Asean-China Maritime Exercise.
He also urged China to engage more with other countries to assure them that the country's rise is peaceful, as he pointed out how China recognises that its rapid military modernisation may make others feel "uncomfortable, even threatened".
Dr Ng was speaking to reporters during a visit to the exercise held in Zhanjiang, a city in the southern Guangdong province on Tuesday.
The six-day multinational exercise, which began on Monday (Oct 22), involves eight ships and is the first exercise that Asean has held with a single other country.
It is co-organised by the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) and the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), with participation from all nine other Asean countries and more than 1,000 personnel.
Dr Ng visited the exercise's combined command post, the Chinese Type 052D destroyer Changsha, and interacted with Chinese navy personnel.
He said the Chinese ship was impressive, with modern communications equipment, and running on a lean crew of about 200 personnel.
"And that's very good for China. But I think China also recognises that its military modernises so rapidly, (it) can understand why other countries may feel uncomfortable, even threatened, and I'm glad that the leadership has said that they understand this."
He added that the most important thing for China is to engage more with external parties - "to continue to assure both by their words and actions that China's rise is peaceful, and that China's rise would be good for everyone".
The exercise comes after an incident near disputed isles in the South China Sea earlier this month, where a Chinese destroyer had come within 41m of the US warship USS Decatur.
The American vessel was on a patrol aimed at challenging China's territorial claims and what the United States views as Chinese efforts to limit freedom of navigation in the strategic waters.
The vital waterway, which faces overlapping territorial claims between Beijing and several South-east Asian states - Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei - as well as Taiwan, has been a source of tensions and concerns in the region.
Speaking to reporters at the Ma Xie Naval Base, Dr Ng said the way forward for the Asean-China Maritime exercise is to do more of them, and larger ones, so that confidence can be built.
He said that the exercise was important to the region as it was "not a given" that militaries will always cooperate, or that they would agree on everything.
"So really during peacetime, you should be spending a lot of your time building linkages, understanding each other, understanding how the other person thinks. Not so that you can get an advantage, but if there's any mishap, hopefully you can call up the other person and... reduce miscalculations."
On Tuesday (Oct 23), participants from Singapore and Brunei received Chinese sailors on their respective ships, as part of preparation for helicopter cross deck landings later in the exercise.
Commander of RSN's First Flotilla and commanding officer of 185 Squadron, Colonel Lim Yu Chuan, and commander of PLA Combat Support Flotilla, Southern Theatre Command, Senior Captain Zhu Jianda, who are exercise co-directors, were briefed on its conduct.
Dr Ng also went on the RSN's Formidable-class frigate RSS Stalwart, and spoke with local and Chinese media.
Asked why the exercise was held in Zhanjiang instead of Asean waters where an inaugural Asean-US maritime exercise would be held next year, Dr Ng said China had reciprocated to host it as an earlier tabletop exercise in August was held in Singapore.
"It's mainly because the idea was mooted some time ago, but we got agreement early this year and it's just time and space which allowed this."
While Singapore has handed over the chairmanship of the Asean Defence Ministers' Meeting last week, Dr Ng said the Republic will continue to play its part as it believes in multilateralism.
"Singapore believes in a system based on law - resolution of disputes through peaceful means where both large and small countries can benefit. So obviously it's to our interest to push for these ideas."
Dr Ng will be in Beijing on Thursday to attend the 8th Beijing Xiangshan Forum, where he will speak at the first plenary session on the topic "International Security Governance: New Ideas and Approaches".
The annual forum brings together high-level defence, military and foreign affairs leaders from around the world to discuss a range of security issues.