SINGAPORE - Countries should build trust and confidence and support diplomatic efforts to find solutions to the conflicting and overlapping claims in the South China Sea, Minister for Defence Ng Eng Hen said on Friday (Feb 14) at a security conference in Munich, Germany.
Speaking at a Maritime Security Roundtable, Dr Ng also stressed the importance of upholding the principles of freedom of navigation despite these claims, and proposed resource-sharing mechanisms to reduce the risk of conflict.
He said: "I think as leaders, we have to deal with the situation at hand and agree on a workable roadmap to avoid conflict. And the question is asked - what might such a productive, or at least de-escalatory, roadmap look like?"
Setting the expectations for the South China Sea dispute, Dr Ng said that, at one extreme, complete resolution in the near future could be impossible, especially on issues of sovereignty as there are powerful nationalist sentiments that make it very difficult for national leaders to make certain concessions .
At the other extreme, the status quo where civilian and military facilities are present on the disputed features and islands, remains, he said.
Between these extremes, the main issues that need to be resolved "can be brought into sharper focus for conflict prevention, if not resolution", he said.
These issues include upholding the principle of freedom of navigation, and resource-sharing mechanisms for areas like fisheries and hydrocarbons.
"These focus areas can be worked on to promote mutual benefits without prejudice to competing claims of ownership," he said.
Explaining the need for all sides to allow the freedom of navigation for both the commercial and the military, Dr Ng said this not only means unimpeded rights of passage, but also for military training in international waters.
On the issue of resource-sharing mechanisms, Dr Ng said one should not underestimate fishery disputes and the "potential fallout over the common fish on our dinner tables".
He said: "Fishery disputes can precipitate larger conflicts as competing agencies enforce their putative rights. I would therefore put fisheries agreements or consensus as a priority."
As for the issue of hydrocarbons, the South China Sea reserves contain an estimated 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 11 billion barrels of oil.
While the pay-off will be big, unlocking this resource will require large capital investments over long gestational periods, said Dr Ng.
He said it would make sense to collaborate on hydrocarbon projects to share the costs and dividends in "win-win arrangements without prejudice to sovereignty".
The annual three-day high-level security conference brings together more than 500 heads of government, defence and foreign ministers, parliamentarians, military leaders, and security experts from around the world.
In his speech, Dr Ng also cited how defence establishments within Asean have worked on areas to facilitate de-escalation, common understanding and to build confidence.
One example is the practice of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea during maritime exercises with partner countries to reduce the risks of misunderstandings and unintended escalation.
He also noted that in 2018, Singapore, as Asean Chair, developed the air counterpart of such a code called Guidelines for Air Military Encounters.
In addition, Singapore also co-organised the Asean-China Maritime Exercise in 2018 and facilitated the Asean Defence Ministers' Meeting's agreement to conduct the Asean-US Maritime Exercise last year.