BY KENNY CHEE
INTER-KOREAN tensions hogged the agenda on the first day of the weekend Shangri-La Dialogue, but other important defence issues also took the spotlight at the regional security conference.
Organised by the London- based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), the ninth annual forum discussed matters ranging from weapons of mass destruction to humanitarian and disaster relief by military forces.
Held at the Shangri-La Hotel, the forum drew over 300 defence ministers, government officials, academics and analysts from 28 countries.
Some key issues discussed: ASEAN AS A PLATFORM TO BUILD A NEW REGIONAL SECURITY PLATFORM
Asean leaders suggested yesterday that Asean - an association of 10 nations, including Singapore - could become a key platform on which regional security issues could be explored.
One way forward could be the first Asean Defence Ministers' Meeting-Plus Eight later this year. The eight other nations are Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, Russia and the United States.
This new defence meeting would convene about once every three years to discuss traditional defence matters, as well as non-traditional ones like maritime security.
Mr Ong Keng Yong, director of the Institute of Policy Studies at the National University of Singapore, said it marked significant progress. He noted that at past Shangri-La Dialogues, no concrete materialisation of such a broader security platform had been brought up.
Mr Teo Chee Hean, Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence, said yesterday other regional forums that have had Asean at the centre have managed to bring together various major nations to discuss security, economic and other issues.
For instance, the East Asia Summit sees participation not just from Asean members, but also from countries like China, Japan and South Korea.
He said: "Going forward, Asean will continue to serve (as) an important part as the fulcrum of the regional security architecture."
U.S.-CHINA TENSIONS Last Saturday, the US and China criticised each other in relation to stalled military talks between the two countries.
US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates said that China had put the brakes on the bilateral talks on further military cooperation, due to US arms sales to Taiwan.
Dr Gates said this made "little sense", saying that US arms sales to Taiwan are not a new development and that the US has always said publicly that it did not support Taiwanese independence.
General Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of staff of China's People's Liberation Army, countered by saying "we do not regard US arms sales to Taiwan as something normal". He also said he hoped the US was not merely paying "lip service" in not supporting independence for Taiwan.
Nevertheless, both sides acknowledged that the two countries would like military discussions to continue.
SOUTH AND NORTH KOREAN TENSIONS
The first day of the Shangri-La Dialogue saw South Korean President Lee Myung Bak give a strongly worded speech.
Referring to the alleged sinking of the corvette Cheonan in March by a North Korea submarine, he said Seoul would not tolerate more incursions by the North. He said such acts would also threaten regional stability.
Citing the Cheonan incident as one of many attacks by North Korea, including an assassination attempt on the South's president in 1983, Mr Lee said Seoul had always "exercised patience and restraint" with each attack "for the sake of peace and stability of the Korean Peninsula".
He also called claims by North Korea that the US military had in fact mistakenly fired on the Cheonan "outlandish".
Still, he restated a "grand bargain" to resolve the issue of North Korea building nuclear weapons. This would involve putting all related issues on the table, in which security assurance and economic assistance would be provided, in exchange for the North giving up its nuclear- weapon ambitions fully.
CRACKDOWN ON DRUG TRADE IN AFGHANISTAN
Russia urged for more action to be taken to throttle the drug trade in Afghanistan. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said that sale of heroin from poppy plants grown in Afghanistan was funding the Taliban and other groups.
Separately, Mr Nigel Inkster, director of transnational threats and political risk with IISS, said terrorist groups were also being funded, though in small part still, by cybercrimes, a new and emerging security challenge.
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