The United States has "no better friend than Singapore" in the region, says US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter, as defence and military chiefs gathered in the Republic for the 15th Shangri-La Dialogue yesterday.
Speaking at a joint press conference with his Singapore counterpart Ng Eng Hen, Dr Carter said the US is grateful to have "as capable and as principled a security partner as Singapore".
Dr Carter said Singapore, like the US, stood for cooperation and inclusiveness, and believed in the proper conduct of international affairs.
He had also discussed this with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during a meeting yesterday, and thanked Mr Lee for the close partnership between the two countries and for facilitating the US' presence in the Asia-Pacific, including hosting the P-8 Poseidon maritime aircraft.
Dr Carter's comments came hours after China announced it was sending five ships to join the US-hosted Rim of the Pacific (Rimpac) naval exercise this year. Dr Carter said China's participation in the biennial Rimpac "is a perfect example of working together".
China's military build-up in the South China Sea will likely dominate this year's dialogue, an annual security summit which is both a forum for defence policymakers and analysts, as well as a backdrop for bilateral meetings between delegations from the Asia-Pacific. Several countries are locked in disputes with China over territorial claims in the South China Sea. It has vowed not to recognise an upcoming Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling, in a process initiated by the Philippines.
The man most likely to be asked about China's presence in the disputed waters will be Admiral Sun Jianguo, deputy chief of the Joint Staff Department of China's Central Military Commission. The naval officer is slated to speak on the challenges of conflict resolution tomorrow.
Yesterday, he urged Australia to be fair over the disputes, after meeting Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin, chief of the Australian Defence Force. "China has maintained a consistent and clear policy on the South China Sea issue and we wish the Australian side to take a fair and objective stance," said Adm Sun, as reported by Xinhua news agency.
In a keynote address last night to over 500 military chiefs, ministers, and other delegates, Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha said his country believes that Asean must be united on the South China Sea issue, and supports an early conclusion of a Code of Conduct.
But he also said that "countries should take a win-win approach" and look for common ground, even as negotiations continue.
Yesterday, Dr Ng said there needs to be "clear rules of the road" where all parties understand how disputes should be resolved. He said Singapore has "no fantasies or delusions" about the size of its influence. "What we can do is try to speak truth to power, to say what we see as accommodating for both interests of small and large countries."
As for China's rise, he said: "There is no question of containment.
"The question is how do you accommodate the security architecture for both a resident power and a rising power."
Over this weekend, the forum will also address challenges brought by terrorism, irregular migration, and North Korea's nuclear programme.