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Singapore Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen urges constant dialogue to maintain peace
Asia-Pacific Defense Forum / January 15, 2014

By Larry Luxner

As military expenditures rise throughout East Asia and the Pacific region, nations — both individually and as part of economic blocs such as ASEAN — are engaging in constant dialogue to prevent misunderstandings and mistakes that could result in violent confrontations.

Singapore Defense Minister Dr. Ng Eng Hen delivered that message in December at Washington’s Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS).

“Asian nations have witnessed an increasing nationalism amongst their people,” he said. “As countries develop, it’s natural and proper for governments and citizens to feel a sense of pride and exert their national identity and sovereignty. However, unabated, this assertiveness can accentuate tensions and even precipitate conflicts.”

Ng, 55, a surgical oncologist, has been defense minister since 2011. He was in the United States to witness the Singapore Armed Forces’ exercise “Forging Saber” at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, involving 700 servicemen, and to attend a celebration marking the 20th anniversary of the Singapore Air Force’s Peace Carvin II F-16 detachment.

Ng met with U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and reaffirmed the “excellent and long-standing bilateral defense relationship between the United States and Singapore” — an accord outlined in a 1990 memo of understanding that allows U.S. warships and aircraft to transit Singaporean air and naval bases.

The first Littoral Combat Ship, the USS Freedom, was deployed to Singapore in March 2013. The ship took part in bilateral and multilateral exercises, enhancing U.S. engagement in the region.

“Our close relationship with the United States is based on a shared strategic perspective for a stable Asia-Pacific region that fosters growth and prosperity for all nations, small and large,” Ng said, noting the 2005 signing of a strategic framework accord between the two countries. “This American presence, in my view, is essential for the continuation of international law and order.”

In introducing Ng, former U.S. deputy secretary of state Richard L. Armitage said the 55-year-old politician represents “the next generation of leadership in Singapore” — a sovereign city-state of 5.3 million people that today enjoys the highest per-capita income in Asia.

“They did this in the face of no land and no natural resources. Now they’ve got a country that has the 35th largest economy in the world,” said Armitage, who now runs his own consulting firm, Armitage International. “This generation is not able to rest on its laurels. When you’re Singapore, you can’t. You’ve always got to be ahead of everyone else in the game.”

In his speech at CSIS, titled “Reaping Promises and Avoiding Perils in Asia,” Ng said the birth of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) only two years after Singapore achieved independence in 1965 was a response to the escalating fight against communism in the region.

“The experience of being colonized and caught between global powers galvanized Southeast Asian states to consolidate and protect their sovereignty, to be able to chart their own past and future. To this end, ASEAN was formed in 1967 by its founding members, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand — specifically to bind the Southeast Asian nations together in friendship and cooperation.”

Today, ASEAN has 10 member states that are home to a combined 616 million people. Its combined GDP of $2.3 trillion is projected to double by 2020.

“Overall, I think we can celebrate Asia’s rise. It is what enlightened powers have collectively worked for — even fought and died for — in the last half-century. Without Asia’s economic input today, the effects of the global financial crisis in 2008 would have certainly been much more severe,” Ng said. “According to the World Bank, East Asia and the Pacific accounts for 40 percent of global growth this year, and one-third of global trade this year, higher than any other region in the world.”

Yet even as the region celebrates Asia’s prosperity, there are “perils to avoid,” Ng told CSIS.

“The risk of instability exists. While Myanmar has started an unprecedented simultaneous political and economic opening up of society, it also has to deal with clashes between different ethnic and religious groups,” he warned. “Thailand is struggling with ongoing political turmoil, with many changes of government in the last decade. Beyond ASEAN, China is undergoing deep social and economic reforms. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared that his obligation is to rebuild the Japanese economy to be vibrant, then to make Japan a dependable force. But Japan has to contend with reactions from its neighbors due to unresolved animosities of the past.”

Meanwhile, ASEAN member states are far apart when it comes to economic development. Annual per-capita income ranges from only $890 in Burma to more than $50,000 in Singapore. Religious differences are also a factor; while most Cambodians, Thais and Burmese are Buddhists, the majority of Malaysians and Indonesians are Muslim, and Catholicism dominates in the Philippines.

Against the backdrop of all this is the rise of China, which today boasts more than 150 billionaires — second only to the United States — and a GDP calculated at $8.2 trillion in 2012.

“In the East China Sea, strong nationalist sentiments have risen in both China and Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. Tit-for-tat deployments of patrols and naval vessels of both countries have occurred. Fighter jets have scrambled to respond to aircraft overflights, and there have even been allegations of a fire-control radar locked on a country’s destroyer,” Ng said.

“Strong reactions have occurred in response to the Air Defense Identification Zone designated by China. While no physical incidents have occurred as yet, the risks are not theoretical.”

In another incident last May, he recalled, the Philippine Coast Guard shot and killed a Taiwanese fisherman in the South China Sea, while North Korea threatened at one point to void the armistice that ended the Korean War and launch a nuclear attack on the United States.

“All of us watch these unfolding events with concern. Indeed, we should, as these security challenges and flashpoints could erode the stability and growth of Asia. While the world reaps the harvest of Asia’s economic rise, we must pay heed lest Asia stumbles as the impact on the world will be deeply felt,” he warned.

In 2012, Asia’s military expenditures came to $287 billion, surpassing the $262 billion spent by European nations on defense. Singapore alone spends $11 billion a year on defense, he said.

“As Asia’s militaries modernize, we must ensure constant dialogue among all countries to avoid misunderstandings and reduce tensions. There must be responsive and effective conflict resolution dispute mechanisms to address differences through peaceful means,” he said.

And nowhere is the risk for misunderstandings higher than in the South China Sea, home to the Spratly Islands which are claimed by six nations: Brunei, China, Malaysia, Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Ng praised a recent suggestion by Brunei to establish hotlines to maintain government-to-government contact, as well as Vietnam’s proposal to adopt a “resolution of no first use of force” in the South China Sea. He also noted the participation of 3,000 troops in a recent humanitarian relief exercise in June organized by the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting (ADMM-Plus). This involved the 10 member states of ASEAN plus eight other countries: Australia, New Zealand, China, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States.

“Some 3,000 troops, six ships and 15 helicopters from all 18 military deployed engineering, search and rescue teams. This allowed constructive engagement, with Japanese and Chinese soldiers working alongside each other,” he said. “When Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines, many countries responded individually. The ADMM-Plus militaries could perhaps have been more effective working together, and these challenges point to the need for more coordinated efforts — not just humanitarian but also other regional security challenges.”

“Political will and leadership will be required from all countries if we are to maintain peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region,” Ng said. “While there are areas of concern, we also see positive signs. From Singapore’s perspective, the U.S.-China relationship is critical to global and regional stability, and it sets the context for all other relationships. Singapore looks forward to forceful, enlightened leadership from both the U.S. and Chinese governments to help achieve stability and progress for Asia, and indeed, the world.”

As a country dependent on trade like no other in the world, Singapore takes global maritime and aviation accords quite seriously, Ng said in addressing China’s recent declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone — a move strongly criticized by many of its neighbors.

“I don’t intend to be an apologist for China’s position, but in the ASEAN framework with respect to disputes in the South China Sea, we have to agree on a code of conduct that sets the rules of the road and allows freedom of navigation to be protected,” he said. “Singapore’s position is that disputes need to be settled peacefully.”

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