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Meeting Challenges through Shared Principles, Interests and Objectives

Advancing Defence Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific : Remarks by Singaporian Minister for defence, Ng Eng Hen, at Shangri-La Dialogue 2013. Singapore, 2 June, 2013. Source : IISS.

Dr John Chipman, my fellow plenary speakers Minister Le Drian and General Vinh, distinguished colleagues and friends, it is an honour to be able to address you today. We are delighted to be able to welcome you to Singapore for the Shangri-La Dialogue. Thank you for your support for the Dialogue, particularly those of you, like Minister Le Drian and General Vinh, who have attended the Dialogue more than once.

Regional Developments

Much has been said about the growth and prosperity of Asian nations over the last two decades.  Some have even dubbed it the “Asia-Pacific Century”. Whatever the appellations, the virtuous effects of Asia’s rise have been dramatic. Asia’s growth engine was sorely needed and indeed kept the global economy in flight in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis in 2008, when the economies of the US and subsequently Europe slumped.  Peoples within Asia have benefited greatly from its growth, and the statistics reflect this rising tide that has lifted countless boats quite dramatically. Three decades ago, 1.7 billion people in East and South Asia lived in extreme poverty, on less than US$1.25 a day. Today, the figure has been more than halved, to 753 million. According to the Asian Development Bank, three-quarters of Asian economies reported youth literacy rates of 95% and above. An OECD survey of 22 Asian countries found that their average life expectancy had increased from 57 years in 1970 to 72 years forty years later – a stunning 15 years’ increase! It is no wonder that Asia and Oceania, with half of the world’s population, have been deemed to hold tremendous potential, poised to reap the demographic dividends from a young and more educated population. This optimism extends to ASEAN, a sizeable region within Asia, with 600 million people, half of which are still under the age of 30. 

Rejecting autarky under communism and freed from their colonial pasts, Asian nations gained independence and progressed as they found common cause and values in a globalised World - interlinked through the global commons of international finance, trade and security, which are crucial for continued stability and progress.

But there are existing challenges that could derail Asia’s promise and great hope. Sustained progress of many Asian nations have bolstered their confidence and provided the means to modernise their economies and militaries. The numbers bear this out. Nominal Asian defence spending has increased from US$207.4 billion in 2008 to US$287.4 billion in 2012, equivalent to an average annual growth rate of 8.6%. According to the IISS, Asia spent more on defence than Europe in 2012.

The growing confidence and resulting assertiveness of Asian countries to project both soft and hard power is an inevitable consequence of their growth and is of itself not a win-lose formulation. Indeed, the global economy depends on Asia as an engine of growth. Asian countries have also taken on more active roles in international institutions, contributing more substantively to international security. For instance, China, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, the Republic of Korea, Japan and India, as well as Singapore, have all deployed to the Gulf of Aden in the international fight against piracy.

However, rising nationalism within individual countries can create win-lose constructs if they threaten the global commons that have provided the stability and means for progress in the Asia-Pacific region. It is an existing threat that has already manifested itself in a number of ways – such as in matters of contested sovereignty and competing territorial claims. In the East China Sea, strong nationalist sentiments have been roused in both China and Japan over the Diaoyu / Senkaku Islands. Tensions are running high over the shooting of a Taiwanese fisherman by the Philippine Coast Guard in the South China Sea. Manila has since been the subject of vehement protests and economic sanctions from the Taiwanese. Apart from security concerns, such incidents impede development. As a specific example, it would be difficult for large reservoirs of much needed gas and oil to be found and extracted given the current tensions within the Asian seas. There have been periodic skirmishes between ship vessels of different countries, some of them military, in the South China Sea.

 Frameworks for Cooperation

It is against this backdrop that existing regional and global networks play a much-needed and crucial role to help balance rising nationalism and keep, if not expand, our global common space. Without these frameworks, individual countries risk becoming increasingly insular, at the expense of common goals. 

Indeed, our increasing interactions in security cannot be the centre or predominant focus of our cooperative efforts. I say this even as a Defence Minister. While we must have security cooperation, we need to premise our terms of engagement on areas of common interests in vital economic and social domains. This is why Singapore is pushing the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP, which comprises the ten ASEAN Member States and its six FTA partners. When concluded, the RCEP will be the world’s largest trade arrangement, covering almost half of the world’s population and accounting for over a quarter of world GDP. Equally significant is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, another economic partnership, which further liberalises trade between economies on both sides of the Pacific. Socio-cultural exchanges, such as those that take place under the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community, must be enhanced to provide opportunities for stronger ties to be forged between countries.

Concurrent to these efforts, the defence and security communities should do our part within existing fora as we are doing now in the SLD, and in others like the ADMM-Plus, the EAS and ARF. The ADMM-Plus builds on the ADMM, and involves key extra-regional countries – the US, China, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, Russia and India.

For credibility, defence communities need to achieve concrete outcomes from these various fora. I would like to suggest three areas to focus on. First, we must step up practical cooperation, especially between militaries, to build understanding, if not trust. Here, the ADMM-Plus is moving boldly. It will conduct its first joint exercise later this month, in Brunei as the chair, a large-scale HADR/Military Medicine exercise involving over 2,000 personnel from the 18 ADMM-Plus militaries, seven ships, 18 helicopters and medical, search and rescue and civil engineering teams. Two other ADMM-Plus full troop exercises – in maritime security and counter-terrorism – will also be held this year. That the ADMM and ADMM-Plus can move from dialogue to cooperation within a few short years is a significant achievement at the political, policy and operational levels. 

Second, we must together effectively tackle common security threats, which are increasingly non-traditional in scope and transnational in reach. These include piracy, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and natural disasters. The Proliferation Security Initiative, for instance, takes a pragmatic and action-oriented approach, developing and maintaining measures to interdict the illicit transfer of WMDs, their delivery systems and related materials, in a manner consistent with national and international legal frameworks. Within Southeast Asia, we have the Malacca Strait Patrols, through which Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore collaborate to counter the piracy and armed robbery threat in the Malacca Strait. The ADMM-Plus has also established five Experts’ Working Groups (EWGs) to build cooperation in five areas of common security interest – humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, military medicine, maritime security, peacekeeping operations and counter-terrorism. We recently also agreed to set up an additional EWG, on humanitarian mine action, to promote cooperation in dealing with the painful remnants of war in the region.

Third, we need to quickly establish channels of communication and other mechanisms at the operational and political levels to prevent or mitigate escalation of tensions. This was discussed at the 7th ADMM last month, where the ASEAN Defence Ministers expressed support for our Leaders’ commitment at the 22nd ASEAN Summit for ASEAN to work actively with China towards the early conclusion of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. There, General Thanh, the Vietnamese Defence Minister, raised a suggestion for claimant states to enter into a “no first use of force” agreement. Singapore supports this idea for claimant states to enter into such an agreement. This is one way to give effect to the principle of peaceful settlement of disputes in the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation which has been acceded to by ASEAN’s dialogue partners. Brunei further proposed the setup of “hotlines”, to quickly defuse tensions at sea. We welcome these ideas, and encourage regional militaries to see what more can be done on this front – for instance, increased information-sharing, especially between regional navies, on their SOPs in the event of incidents at sea.


Colleagues and friends, Asia holds great promise for ourselves and the World but continued peace and prosperity in this region are neither fait accompli nor automatic. Instead, if we are to continue to enjoy stability and progress, we must work effectively in unison to strengthen areas of common interests. Defence cooperation can meet the challenges before us through shared principles, interests and objectives.

See also :


L’Asie-Pacifique fait face à trois grands types de menaces et de risques

Advancing Defence Cooperation In The Asia-Pacific: Jean-Yves Le Drian

Hagel Addresses Chinese Concerns During Shangri-La Dialogue

Hagel : "In Asia, We See a Range of Persistent and Emerging Threats"

Hagel, in remarks directed at China, speaks of cyberattack threat (New York Times)

Shangri-La Dialogue (Wikipedia)

Shangri-La dialogue: China's rising power in spotlight (BBC News Asia)

Shangri-La Dialogue opens in Singapore (CCTV, Beijing)

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Directeur de la publication : Joël-François Dumont
Comité de rédaction : Jacques de Lestapis, Hugues Dumont, François de Vries (Bruxelles), Hans-Ulrich Helfer (Suisse), Michael Hellerforth (Allemagne).
Comité militaire : VAE Guy Labouérie (†), GAA François Mermet (2S), CF Patrice Théry (Asie).