SINGAPORE: The United States' recent unilateral tariffs on steel and aluminium imports, based on national security grounds, and China's moves actions on disputed territories, similarly for security reasons, have challenged the status quo and accepted rules which have benefited Asia, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said on Sunday (Jun 3).
Speaking at the close of the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Dr Ng said it is clear from their actions that both China and the US are attempting to address "perceived inequalities" and principles or practices which disadvantage them.
"In both instances, core security considerations have been used to justify, if not make imperative, the need for such actions," he said.
"Whatever the merits of arguments, these deviations from global norms challenge the status quo and accepted rules which have hitherto benefited Asia, and the regions beyond. All of us would agree that it is in our collective interest to preserve a system that has lifted millions in Asia from poverty."
Dr Ng said that the US and China, by virtue of their sheer size, will be critical players as the world moves to what he called Globalisation 2.0.
"Many speakers before me have sounded a cautionary note that in this process, if the global commons are not preserved, or worse, fracture into de facto or formal trading and security alliances, then all of us are in for a rough time ahead," he said.
Dr Ng cautioned that it would be a "lose-lose scenario for the world" if the US and China are unwilling to work together for an inclusive system that both large and small states can benefit from, and where rules apply to all.
"We hope that enlightened minds and leadership will prevail and the US and China avoid a trade war which can only lead to more losers than winners," he said.
Dr Ng also said that the ASEAN-China Code of Conduct on the South China Sea as well as the ASEAN-China Maritime Exercise, which will take place later this year, are key to ASEAN’s efforts to strengthen the regional security architecture in today’s changing strategic landscape.
Dr Ng called this year's Shangri-La Dialogue a success – with almost every security issue in the region and beyond discussed.
Speaking to the media at the end of the forum, he said: "I don't think there was a single topic that affects us in terms of security challenges in this region, even beyond, that wasn’t touched on."
"I think ministers and panelists did particularly well, in giving in their words, the passion that follows their conviction; what they felt and going even beyond what their aspirations were," he added.
Dr Ng met his new Malaysian counterpart Mohamad Sabu at the dialogue, with both countries reaffirming their strong defence ties.
Dr Ng also commented on Malaysia's plan to build developments on Middle Rocks, calling it "completely legitimate".
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has said that the country wants to enlarge Middle Rocks, which the International Court of Justice has ruled belongs to Malaysia, to form a small island.
“As long as it complies with international law, both sides or all countries have a right to what they develop, to take what is necessary for their own needs," Dr Ng said.
“And I think it's legitimate. And for them, they feel they need to develop it. I think it's good they have said so publicly, so we all understand each other's positions; just as Singapore will want to develop various aspects as we've done, in terms of our islands, for domestic or civilian or security."
A record number of ministers attended the dialogue this year – 40 from 50 countries – a significant jump compared to the inaugural forum in 2002 when only 12 ministers were present.