In view of the changing circumstances in the South China Sea dispute, "ASEAN has taken a practical approach, to work on the Code of Conduct to constrain, if not bind, behaviour".
Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen said this at the Munich Security Conference (MSC) on 16 Feb. He was speaking on the topic Bridging Troubled Waters – Deconflicting the South China Sea Disputes as part of the Maritime Security Roundtable.
He pointed out that China, or more precisely, the People's Liberation Army (PLA), has established a forward defence line in the South China Sea. This included military bases with "hardened hangars, helipads, full-length runways that can accommodate Chinese fighters, naval patrol aircraft, and military transport aircraft".
Noting that no one thinks any country would attempt to forcibly push out the PLA, Dr Ng added that China had sometimes responded robustly to the sailing of warships by France, the United Kingdom (UK) and United States (US) through the regional hotspot.
"With these new realities, the outcome of this modus vivendi remains uncertain… (If any side) beyond the claimant states chooses to be more assertive or under-estimates the resolve of the other party, more trouble and uncertainty may ensue," he said.
He highlighted that as the ASEAN Defence Ministers' Meeting (ADMM) and ADMM-Plus Chair last year, Singapore developed the world's first multilateral Guidelines for Air Military Encounters to improve the operational safety of air lanes.
The first ASEAN-China Maritime Exercise, held in October 2018, was also part of Singapore's efforts as ADMM-Chair. Singapore was the country coordinator for ASEAN-China relations from August 2015 to August 2018.
"All of these are practical confidence-building measures that minimise the risk of miscalculations, and build trust and confidence among militaries," concluded Dr Ng.
Held from 15 to 17 Feb, the MSC is an annual high-level security conference that brings together heads of government, defence and foreign ministers, parliamentarians, military leaders, and security experts from around the world.
On the sidelines of the conference, Dr Ng met US Acting Secretary of Defence Patrick Shanahan and UK Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williamson. He will also speak at 11th Munich Young Leaders Roundtable on The Dialectics of Modern Democracy: Challenges Facing the Multilateral Order.
As part of his three-day trip to Germany, Dr Ng will officiate at the launch of the Republic of Singapore Navy's first Type 218SG submarine in Kiel on 18 Feb.