Amid ongoing tensions and the potential for conflict in the South China Sea, it is important to build confidence between the militaries of Asean and its eight key partners, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said.
Citing the Asean-US and Asean-China maritime exercises, he said the Asean Defence Ministers' Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus) grouping has to know one another despite the differences, and find ways to build confidence, if not trust.
"We have been pushing for multilateral exercises and, indeed, we have been doing 18-nation exercises in counterterrorism," he said. "You are not going to solve these differences without communication."
Dr Ng was speaking to reporters before the 6th ADMM-Plus meeting in Bangkok yesterday. He was asked about the criticism made by US Defence Secretary Mark Esper against Chinese activities in the South China Sea.
The ADMM-Plus meeting was attended by ministers from 10 Asean countries, plus Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia and the United States.
From Asean's point of view, the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea is an important step in resolving the friction between China and the US, said Dr Ng. "From Singapore's point of view, the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea must be substantive, it must be effective and it must comply with the international rule of law," he added.
"These are fundamental principles upon which all consensus-building mechanisms or agreements must be based on, otherwise they are free-floating and they are not anchored," he said.
While Dr Ng would not describe the situation on the ground in the South China Sea as tense because there is no stand-off, he said there is potential for accidents or incidents to happen. "And that is what we are trying to mitigate against, whether it is hotlines for Asean or for some of the proposals," he said.
"The more communication lines and platforms you have, you reduce the risk of miscalculation."
Yesterday, the defence ministers exchanged views on the regional and global security environment, and adopted a Joint Statement on Advancing Partnership for Sustainable Security. It upheld the significance of ADMM-Plus as "a key component of a robust, effective and open regional security arrangement that contributes to trust and confidence building, as well as practical defence and security cooperation between Asean member states and Plus countries".
During the ADMM Retreat on Sunday, Asean defence ministers discussed the ADMM's progress since its establishment. They also emphasised Asean centrality, underscoring the need for the grouping to be an honest broker between large powers, and one that respects international law and promotes an open and inclusive security architecture through ADMM-Plus.
On Sunday, Dr Ng also met three fellow defence ministers attending the forum for their first time. He said his Indonesian counterpart Prabowo Subianto, a former special forces commander in the Indonesian Armed Forces, was "an old friend of the SAF".
"We share the same perspective, that Indonesia and Singapore have many areas where we can work together for mutual benefit while helping each other resolve differences that inevitably crop up from time to time among close neighbours," he said.
Dr Ng and his Japanese counterpart Taro Kono affirmed a desire to step up defence relations, following 10 years of defence cooperation. Dr Ng and his Australian counterpart Linda Reynolds welcomed the good progress under the bilateral Comprehensive Strategic Partnership as well as Australia's commitment to Asean.