Rising defence spending in Asia a cause for concern: Dr Ng

SINGAPORE - Defence spending in Asia has surpassed that of NATO Europe in absolute terms and the rate of increase has even surpassed Europe, making it a reason to be concerned about security in the Asia-Pacific region.

Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen made this comment during a speech at the 51st Munich Security Conference (MSC) in Germany on Saturday, where he joined foreign affairs and defence leaders from various countries at the annual high-level security conference.

In his address, Dr Ng laid out three reasons for concern about the security situation in the Asia-Pacific, and three reasons for optimism.

While he justified his first point on Asia's increased defence spending as "playing catch-up" because of rising economies, Dr Ng noted Asia's lack of well-developed security architecture as the second point for worry.

"It is well known that leaders of countries in Northeast Asia do not talk to each other much," Dr Ng said.

"Few platforms exist, whether it is between the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea (ROK), whether it is between China and Japan, whether it is Japan and the ROK and between China and Taiwan."

There are frameworks with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), such the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting, the East Asia Summit, and the ASEAN Regional Forum, but these are young institutions that require much more time to build up their capacity and prove their worth, he cautioned.

On the third point, Dr Ng cited the lack of a strong collective will in Asia not to engage in conflicts unlike Europe, which created formal structures and alliances in the wake of the two world wars.

"You'll remember at last year's MSC, Mr Kissinger said that Asia reminded him of Europe, 19th century Europe, at risk of a conflagration," Dr Ng reminded the audience.

However, the rise of prosperity in Asia is a reason for optimism, Dr Ng said, as instability in the region would not benefit any country.

"There are multiple stakeholders in the AsiaPacific region who are committed to be present," Dr Ng said of US, India, Australia and the EU's interest in Asia as the second reason for optimism.

Lastly, Dr Ng said the unprecedented rise of the middle class in Asia will translate to citizens clamouring for more democratic ideals and individual rights.

Dr Ng, who made the speech as part of a panel alongside four other speakers from China, Japan, South Korea and the US, will also talk about security challenges facing a new generation on Monday at the 7th Munich Young Leaders Round Table.

Earlier, Dr Ng met his counterparts from France and Italy. He will also meet defence leaders from Germany, India, and the United Kingdom over the next few days.