Smaller countries in the region like Singapore have to invest in their own defence capabilities even as they try to resolve disputes through peaceful means - because the cost of any potential conflict is prohibitively high, said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen yesterday.
"Let's be clear about this, for countries in this region, our entire lives are invested. Taking the analogy from the elephants, we are the grass and we can't move anywhere. So, of course, we have to invest in our own defence capabilities," Dr Ng said in response to a question on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue.
He was asked whether Singapore would be ready to invest more in its defence capabilities.
On Friday night, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, when asked after his keynote address at this year's Shangri-La Dialogue how China's leadership can increase the comfort level with its neighbours in the region, had said: "When elephants fight, the grass is trampled. When elephants make love, the grass also suffers. And so it's very difficult to be an elephant. And yet the elephant has to get on with smaller countries."
Dr Ng, who was speaking to reporters after hosting 22 visiting ministers and their representatives to lunch at Shangri-La Hotel, said his foreign counterparts agreed that while defence ministers prepare for conflict and war, "our primary objective as defence ministers is to prevent wars".
"There was agreement... that we have to do as much as possible because the cost of conflict is so high, so prohibitive," he said.
"We recognise at the same time that a strong defence is a good deterrence. But beyond that, the ability to candidly sit down with other countries with disputes is significant, and to try and resolve the disputes through peaceful means is certainly better than conflict."
The Ministry of Defence (Mindef), in a statement yesterday, said that among other issues, the ministers exchanged views on the security implications of the US-China relationship - which they agreed was the most important bilateral relationship to the region.
The ministers included China's Defence Minister Wei Fenghe and Acting United States Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan.
Asked about the atmosphere between the two ministers, whose countries have imposed tit-for-tat tariffs worth billions of dollars on each other's goods, Dr Ng said: "If it were a silent movie, you wouldn't know there was a dispute."
Yesterday, defence ministers of the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) member nations reaffirmed their commitment to the pact when they met on the sidelines of the forum. The FPDA, comprising Australia, Britain, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore, will mark its 50th anniversary in 2021.
Dr Ng also met his defence counterparts - Thailand's General Prawit Wongsuwan and France's Florence Parly.
Ms Parly and Dr Ng reaffirmed the strong and broad-based bilateral defence ties, as well as commitment to strengthening bilateral defence cooperation in areas of mutual interest, Mindef said.