Singapore’s defense minister told a forum in Washington, D.C. last week that a new accommodation needed to be found between the United States and other rising powers like China as part of a more inclusive security architecture for the Asia-Pacific.
While the United States has been the preeminent power since the end of the Cold War, Ng Eng Hen told an audience in a speech on December 9 that China’s growing heft as well as the rise of other actors such as India and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) called for a “a new accommodation” as part of a more inclusive security architecture.
“The Asia-Pacific region is changing as it enters the new millennium with different forces shaping its future from the past,” Ng said at an event organized by the Center for a New American Security, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. “To maintain stability and allow regional nations to continue their progress, we will need to be inclusive and accommodate rising powers and the aspirations of individual countries.”
Whatever the merits of China’s claims that the post-WWII system does not allow it to fully fulfill its rising aspirations, Ng said that the world “cannot ignore the rise and influence of China and other growing powers.” Over the past decade, he noted that military spending in Asia and Oceania had increased by about 62 percent, about ten times more than that of Europe.
“The search for inclusivity and for common rules that will bind us all is necessary, even urgent, as we are now dealing with a more militarized Asia,” Ng said.
As countries seek to fashion a more stable and inclusive post-WWII architecture to account for these shifts, Ng argued that U.S. engagement would be critical and that Washington must continue to provide “clear and consistent signals and commit physically” to remain engaged in the region. Since the region is still far from having more mature alliances and partnerships, he stressed that crises analogous to the ones Europe faced after the Libyan crisis in 2011 and the Ukraine crisis in 2014 could “cascade a series of undesirable and unthought-of outcomes” in the region.
“The US’ resolve to continue its role as a dominant and stable force for the Pacific region is critical,” he noted.
Singapore, he said, was willing to help play a role in ensuring an active U.S. presence in the region, as evidenced by the city-state’s decision to accept U.S. defense secretary Ash Carter’s request to support “the rotational deployments” of the US’ P-8 aircrafts to Singapore. Ng’s remarks confirmed what seasoned observers had expected: that the inaugural P-8 deployment mentioned in the new U.S.-Singapore enhanced defense agreement signed by Ng and Carter on Monday – which took place from December 7 to December 14 – would be the first of many (See: “US, Singapore Agree Spy Plane Deployment Amid South China Sea Tensions”).
“Singapore’s belief that the US’ presence in the Asia-Pacific is a force for peace and stability remains a key tenet of the US-Singapore bilateral relationship,” he said.
That said, Ng also emphasized that a continued U.S. presence alone cannot ensure continued peace and stability. He called for building “greater strategic trust” along all stakeholders in the Asia-Pacific amid continued challenges – chiefly unresolved historical animosities especially among Northeast Asian countries; managing the U.S.-China relationship in a way that promotes regional stability and national autonomy for other countries; and the South China Sea disputes.
Addressing these challenges and building strategic trust, Ng said, required adhering to internationally accepted norms and signed agreements. On the South China Sea in particular, which has seen growing Chinese assertiveness, he said that countries needed to adhere to what they had committed to in the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. Prolonged and unresolved disputes, Ng stressed, “will weaken strategic trust in the region”.
“[A]dherence to internationally accepted norms and signed agreements, and strategic trust between stakeholders, must continue to form the bedrock of our shared stability and prosperity,” he said.
New and more relevant platforms, Ng acknowledged, would also be critical as the region confronts these challenges. He provided some examples of what some promising ones have been, from a network among ASEAN law enforcement agencies to combat terrorism and enhance intelligence exchange to an upcoming exercise next year via the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus) on maritime security and counter-terrorism that will involve the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES). Southeast Asian states, including Singapore and Malaysia have been calling for an expansion of CUES, a series of naval protocols negotiated back in 2014 at the Western Pacific Naval Symposium for the safety of vessels meeting at sea (See: “Malaysia Wants Expanded Naval Protocol Amid South China Sea Disputes”).
Addressing the question of China’s rise, while Ng noted that Beijing likes to remind outsiders that it has never sought hegemony or interference in the affairs of others and conceded that the Asian giant’s interests are still largely shaped by domestic needs, he said it was unclear whether this would change in the future. This question, Ng said, would be in the back of observers’ minds as China increases its investments abroad and deepens its dependence on other regions through initiatives like One Belt, One Road (OBOR) development strategy.
“As China seeks to make physical and diplomatic inroads into its surrounding land neighbors through Central Asia and Europe under its OBOR initiative, how might this impact its hitherto non-interventionist stance?” he asked.