Shifting economic dependencies could lead to parallel blocs with strong divisions between them, setting countries up for conflict, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen warned yesterday.
Both World War I and the Cold War were the result of alliances that forced countries to take sides, he said. "So, we are very clear what is at stake, and we want to maintain the current system."
"We still believe that multilateral trade arrangements are not only important for economic dependencies and for economic health, but indeed, for security. Because if I trade a lot with you, it is quite hard for me to fight with you," he said, responding to a question from the audience on the closing day of the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual security forum.
Together with Indonesia's Defence Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu and New Zealand's Defence Minister Ron Mark, Dr Ng spoke on "Ensuring a Resilient and Stable Region".
He told the audience of military chiefs, officers and defence academics that there was nothing wrong with shifting economic dependencies as a "tactical step". It might even be a good thing if, for example, the European Union decides that US terms are too onerous and increases its trade with Japan or China, he said.
"But sooner or later, you are going to have lines that criss-cross less and less. Whether it is technology, whether it is trade, whether it is security, and once you have two or three blocs with parallel lines, and strong divisions between them, you are set up for conflict," he said.
Elaborating later, Dr Ng said that to Singapore, inter-dependency is not only good economically, but also for security, as the price of conflict would be higher for mutually dependent countries. "If we live on the same row, and there is a common corridor between us, we are going to think very hard before we start throwing things at one another.
"But if you are divided by a wall, and insulated from some of the harm when you have conflict, then you think less," he told reporters after the session. For a small state to assert its rights requires acceptance by a larger power, he said. "And Singapore not for one moment takes this as a given. We think it is very hard work to maintain the state of affairs.
"And I think we have that DNA because... Mr Lee Kuan Yew (was) someone who was described as the ultimate realist and the ultimate optimist rolled into one," he said, adding that he had "no cognitive dissonance between ideals that were in contradiction".
The presence of US Acting Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan and China's Defence Minister Wei Fenghe at this year's Shangri-La Dialogue was critical, and most delegates agreed that "at the very least, there was presence", said Dr Ng.
"Almost all the people I spoke to… were very thankful that both came, and also expressed the hope that both would continue to come to every Shangri-La Dialogue."
He added that Mr Shanahan and General Wei, in their respective speeches, did not skirt the difficult issues between the US and China. "They were direct speeches… but I think I would rather have that than just motherhood statements and general statements that didn't address issues," said Dr Ng.