Speech by Senior Minister of State for Defence, Mr Zaqy Mohamad, at the 23rd Asia-Pacific Programme for Senior Military Officers (APPSMO) on "The Role Of Small States And Middle Powers In the Global Order" on 17 Oct 2022

Speech by Senior Minister of State for Defence, Mr Zaqy Mohamad, at the 23rd Asia-Pacific Programme for Senior Military Officers (APPSMO) on "The Role Of Small States And Middle Powers In The Global Order" on 17 Oct 2022


Good morning Ambassador Ong Keng Yong, distinguished speakers, ladies and gentlemen. It is really wonderful to see all of you taking the time off your regular schedules to be here. As Ambassador Ong said, it is really about contributing and at the same time garnering insights, views and perspectives while you are here.

First, let me thank the organisers, the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, for inviting me to speak at the 23rd APPSMO.

Thank you also to all who are here today, and especially for all our foreign guests.


This year's APPSMO comes after two difficult years, in no small part due to COVID-19.

I am glad to be able to be with you in-person to mark the first physical APPSMO since 2019. APPSMO was the brain-child of Singapore's late President S.R. Nathan. Since its inception in 1999, it has become a platform for bright and promising military and defence officials to have candid discussions about some of the world's most pressing issues. As these discussions take place in an informal and comfortable setting, participants are also able to get to know one another, and hopefully forge friendships. With the return to an in-person setting, I trust that the experience at APPSMO will only be richer, in the same way that President Nathan had envisioned it to be.

Weakening of Multilateralism and the International Rules-Based Order

Before you delve into more in-depth discussions over the course of the week, allow me to offer a few of my thoughts on some broad geopolitical trends.

In recent months, we have witnessed a number of developments that have signalled the potential weakening of multilateralism and the international rules-based order, in favour of a more polarised and unstable security environment.

First, we have seen the intensification of great power competition, especially between the US and China. The US has come to see China as its primary strategic competitor. Meanwhile, China's attitudes to the US have also hardened significantly over time, as China sees the US as trying to contain its growth. Over the past year, tensions have risen considerably. The US, China and Taiwan have all indicated a desire to avoid conflict in the Taiwan Strait. However, all three have shifted in their positions over time, giving rise to greater uncertainty and potential for misunderstanding and miscalculations. Singapore is not alone in our concern that the volatile situation could lead to conflict over Taiwan, or in the South China Sea. With the increased possibility of miscalculation on the ground, we hope that all parties involved will exercise prudence and avoid further escalatory actions. Beyond the worsening state of US-China bilateral relations, this strategic rivalry has had a polarising effect on the broader Asia-Pacific region, narrowing the space for small and medium-sized countries to make independent policy decisions.

Second, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has had destabilising effects on the rules-based international order. Russia's actions have endangered the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, including small ones like Singapore. Singapore has taken a strong stance against the invasion of Ukraine. Like many other countries, we have imposed sanctions and restrictions against Russia in response to its actions. However, the necessary consequence of this is that many countries are now contending with the challenges associated with tightened supply chains, inflationary pressures, and an increasingly volatile global economic outlook. Global divisions that were already emerging as a result of the US-China strategic rivalry have also exacerbated because of the situation. There is a growing gulf between democracies and autocracies, with countries less willing to transcend this binary lens to find common ground and work together on areas of mutual interest. For example, as the conflict further strains already disrupted global supply chains, some countries are now also adopting a "friends-shoring" strategy to bolster their supply chain resilience. This involves diverting their supply chains away from countries that do not necessarily share common values.

Third, against this backdrop of rising tensions in the Asia-Pacific and conflict in Europe, we have seen both big and small states strengthen their military postures and harden security alliances. It is telling that this year's APPSMO theme examines the prospects of a "Return of Conventional War?" For years, countries have talked about reaping the benefits of a post-Cold War "peace dividend", allowing countries around the world to downsize their militaries and to invest in socio-economic development instead. The discourse in defence and security circles also moved towards addressing threats outside of the conventional military domain, especially after September 11, as militaries placed growing emphasis on investing in areas such as counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency and addressing other illicit activities. The ongoing war in Europe, and tensions in the Asia-Pacific have re-centred our focus on conventional defence, while at the same time put an end to the illusion of a "peace dividend". Over the past decade, military spending in the Asia-Pacific has increased by over 60 percent. World military expenditure also surpassed US$2 trillion for the first time in 2021, in spite of the ongoing pandemic. This trend looks likely to continue, with NATO member states pledging to invest more, and more quickly, in light of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war.

The Role and Agency of Small States and Middle Powers in an Increasingly Unstable World Order

I imagine that over the course of the next few days, many of you will be discussing and debating the state of great power rivalry, and its implications for global security.

Today, I would like to bring to the fore an additional dimension for you to consider in your discussions.

In particular, I would like to share some of my thoughts on the role that small states and middle powers can play in preserving peace and stability in this time of great power rivalry.

Even amidst this more polarised security environment, the multilateral system and the international rules-based order remain essential to small- and medium-sized countries for survival. Regardless of their geographic locations, smaller states share many common concerns stemming from economic and environmental vulnerabilities. Unlike great powers who have at their disposal immense resources and influence to shape the world to suit their interests, small states, and arguably even middle powers, face greater constraints. Such states, including Singapore, would be exceptionally vulnerable in a world order based on "might is right".

Many small states can trace their roots to small city-states which depended on a stable and open international order to flourish, and have sought to cultivate the relationships and connections to do so. So if you look back at the Middle Ages, city-states such as the Republic of Genoa and the Republic of Venice rose above their size constraints to act as crucial maritime and trade hubs, by capitalising on their strategic locations. Likewise, Temasek, as the island of Singapore was known in the 13th and 14th centuries, was a key node in a wider web of regional trade that included the principalities of Palembang and Melaka. Enmeshed within a putative global or regional order, small states have risen above their limitations, and are able to punch above their weight.

Middle powers, although limited in capacity to unilaterally shape the global order, can also be influential by virtue of their regional stature and ability to exert soft power. Throughout history, we have seen how middle powers, either by banding together or working in concert with small and major powers, were able to exert influence far beyond what their own individual stature would allow for. In the late 1980s, Australia and Canada would lead the formation of the Cairns Group with 12 other countries in order to liberalise global agricultural trade, and improve market access. More recently, the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) came into force in 2018. Under the terms of the agreement, 11 countries comprising both middle powers such as Japan and small states including Singapore agreed to work together to further the ambitious goal of strengthening trade in the Asia-Pacific. Together, this regional partnership constitutes 14 percent of the global economy, and membership is likely to grow over time. These are but some examples of how middle powers and their partners generally recognise that the international order is instrumental in their growth and status, and can actively work together to safeguard this.

Both small and medium-sized countries have also come together to ensure that their interests are accounted for, and their voices heard. In the aftermath of the Korean War, countries including middle powers such as India, Egypt and Indonesia came together in the Non-Aligned Movement. Their hope then was to enable the developing world to chart its own path in the midst of the Cold War, and avoid being caught up in great power rivalries.

Middle powers, in particular, can intervene in global issues, and be a source of regional, even international, leadership. Together with the United Nations, Turkey brokered a deal that saw Russia and Ukraine agreeing to release blockaded grain exports that will go a long way in addressing the threat of global hunger. So you have seen middle powers do this. Turkey is able to play its role well as an interlocutor, because it understands its strategic advantages and the value of constructive engagement on both sides. Japan has also put forth proposals to strengthen the international order. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida addressed the 77th Session of the UN General Assembly in New York just last month. In his speech on 20 September 2022, he called for discussion on the specific steps to reform the deadlocked Security Council, and strengthen the UN, especially in light of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. This has given the world much food for thought, on how to ensure that our international institutions remain robust.

Countries such as Australia, the Republic of Korea, Germany and France are similarly looking for ways to reinforce and put in place the conditions for the preservation of the international order.

What I have described is not a new phenomenon.

Small and medium-sized countries today are part of a long and rightful historical tradition, where states actively participate in the international system. They do so as convenors, mediators, and reformists, even in the face of great instability in their geopolitical environment.

Multilateralism as the Preferred Way Forward to Address Common Security Challenges

In this time of great division, I believe that small states and middle powers are well-placed to advance key principles, including respect for international law, and address common challenges by charting a positive, multilateral agenda. ASEAN, for instance, was first envisioned to represent the collective will of its member countries, small and middle powers, to forge a peaceful and prosperous future for Southeast Asia. These aspirations have borne fruit. Today, the ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting (ADMM)-Plus remains the only regional grouping in the defence sector in which both the US and China are active dialogue partners, and participate alongside one another in military-to-military activities. In this way, ASEAN Member States continue to play a key role in fostering mutual understanding and reducing the risk of miscalculation in the wider Asia-Pacific region. For example, the ADMM-Plus conducted a maritime security field training exercise in 2019, with participants from all 18 ADMM-Plus countries practising confidence-building measures such as the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea.

Multilateral platforms, including ASEAN, allow small and medium-sized states to pool together resources to derive solutions to tackle the growing range of transnational problems that confront us in this increasingly interconnected world.

One such example is in the cyber domain.

Cyberattacks have become a key instrument for both state and non-state actors to perpetuate attacks, usually targeting critical infrastructure, or conducting hostile misinformation and disinformation campaigns. For instance, in Feb 2022, Viasat's satellite services were disrupted by a cyberattack, which resulted in partial outage of internet services across Europe, including the disruption of essential services in Ukraine and France. We must therefore develop rules, norms and principles that will guide states to behave responsibly in cyberspace. Peace and stability in cyberspace is critical for the smooth functioning of everyday life. We are heartened to see so many states participating in the five-year United Nations Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) on the security of and in the use of information and communication technologies, which is currently the only universal and inclusive platform to discuss cyber issues. Singapore is pleased to Chair the OEWG and contribute to this important process. Defence establishments can support our civilian counterparts by developing confidence-building mechanisms, and strengthening our individual capabilities and capacities. The ADMM-Plus Experts' Working Group for Cybersecurity is the only platform that brings together all 18 cyber defence establishments to pursue practical cooperation. On our part, Singapore has established the ADMM Cybersecurity and Information Centre of Excellence (ACICE), which will enhance information-sharing and capacity-building in the region to address common threats in the cyber and information domains.

Public health is another key area.

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated how pandemics and biological threats can change the way societies interact and function. Cooperation between countries is necessary to act effectively in the face of new chemical and biological threats, especially when these threats can easily be beyond a single state's ability to handle as in the case of COVID-19. To this end, Singapore and Cambodia co-sponsored the Phnom Penh Vision on the Role of Defence Establishments in Support of COVID-19 Recovery in June this year. It recognised the importance of multilateral platforms such as the ADMM in supporting national COVID-19 efforts, and pledged to continue cooperation to support the region's recovery from COVID-19 through information-sharing.


Ladies and gentlemen, despite the challenging geopolitical environment, I think that there is room to be hopeful. This hope stems from my belief that all countries big and small have a stake in developing solutions to address the challenges at hand.

Economic and social prosperity are not zero-sum. We have to remember that, especially today in times of conflict, in times of when policies are being shifted and in times when miscalculations exist. There is a lot more that we can achieve working collaboratively and in a peaceful, stable geopolitical environment. Over the course of the next few days, I encourage you to think about what you and your country can bring to the table, and to discuss it with one another. Regardless of size or economic heft, each country has unique advantages that could contribute positively to the world, especially if differences can be set aside.

Let me conclude by reemphasising the valuable opportunity that APPSMO provides for all of us to engage constructively with one other. I hope that you can build on each other's views, and even challenge each other to step out of your comfort zones to drive greater innovation and share different perspectives.

I wish all of you a fruitful and engaging week ahead, and a wonderful time in Singapore. So thank you once again and have a wonderful day ahead.


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