Reassuring to have China's General Wei present at Shangri-La Dialogue, says Ng Eng Hen

China's Defence Minster Wei Fenghe inspects a guard of honour during a welcoming ceremony at the ministry of defence in Singapore, on May 29, 2019. PHOTO: MINDEF

The presence of China's Defence Minister Wei Fenghe in Singapore for an upcoming high-level security forum is reassuring amid the trade tensions between the United States and China, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said yesterday.

It shows a confident China willing to engage with the region and the world, he said.

Dr Ng said he also doubts that the US or China wants to raise tensions in the region despite their trade dispute. "Particularly because they are trade tensions, I think it is even more important for security agencies to give reassurance that there won't be an increased risk of miscalculations or misperceptions and, worse still, conflicts," he said.

Dr Ng was speaking to reporters at the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) after a bilateral meeting with General Wei, who is on an introductory visit to Singapore. Gen Wei is scheduled to speak at the Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD), a top-level annual regional security conference organised by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies which will begin tomorrow and end on Sunday.

Dr Ng said that when the Chinese side received the invitation to take part in the SLD, the events that transpired in recent months, such as trade tensions and technological barriers, were not predicted.

Since China and the US failed to reach a trade deal in Washington earlier this month, both sides have announced tit-for-tat tariffs on billions of dollars worth of each other's goods. Washington has also blacklisted Chinese technology giant Huawei - which it accuses of aiding Beijing in espionage - and has restricted the company's dealings with US firms.

Dr Ng said: "I put across to (Gen Wei) that it was even more relevant for him to be here because there would be many questions asked on security implications. And, in particular, how his ministry and the PLA (People's Liberation Army) would respond.

"So, he also understands that, and I am looking forward to his responses when questions are asked, and his speech during the SLD."

During discussions yesterday, the Chinese and Singapore defence ministers agreed to deepen defence ties and step up bilateral engagements on various fronts, Mindef said in a statement after the meeting.

Both ministers touched on other issues, including the South China Sea, and Dr Ng said Gen Wei reiterated Beijing's firm commitment to a Code of Conduct (COC) in the contested waters, the subject of ongoing talks between China and Asean.

"As for the principles and specifics which underlaid the COC, I think Gen Wei reaffirmed China's desire not only to have peace in this region, but also not to have any confrontation, intended or otherwise, with the US," he said.

Asked if Singapore would be forced to take sides if US-China ties worsen, Dr Ng noted that both had said no country needed to choose sides - a position which he felt was wise.

This reflects that the world, with supply lines crisscrossed, is not unipolar or bipolar, he said.

"We have spent the last 70 years building inclusive architectures, whether it is... global trade, finance or security," he said.

"To be retrogressive and roll back all our efforts in 70 years makes absolutely no sense, and I do not believe for a moment that either the US or the Chinese side would want to do so," said Dr Ng, adding that this was affirmed by Gen Wei.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 30, 2019, with the headline Reassuring to have China's General Wei present at Shangri-La Dialogue, says Ng Eng Hen. Subscribe