Guns, soldiers 'not the answer to maritime spat'

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen toured the PLA Navy's newest missile corvette Fushun at the Qingdao naval base, which is the headquarters for the PLA Navy's North Sea Fleet.

Singapore rejects a military solution to defuse simmering tensions in the fiercely contested South China Sea.

Instead, countries with competing claims should use diplomatic means to resolve the ongoing maritime territorial spat, said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen last Friday.

"The less involved our militaries are, the better for all of us. It's not an issue that requires a military solution. It should never require a military solution.

"In fact, the military should stay as far away as possible from this, and allow diplomatic and other aspects of resolution."

Speaking to the media on the final day of his week-long trip to China where he met his Chinese counterpart Chang Wanquan and other leaders in the People's Liberation Army (PLA), Dr Ng said they discussed how Singapore hopes there would be a peaceful way to resolve the dispute over the waters, through which 50 per cent of world trade flows.

China and Taiwan, along with four ASEAN nations - Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei - have competing claims over parts of the South China Sea.

Dr Ng said he hopes that the competing parties will move forward to implement the guidelines in a non-binding agreement that was signed in 2002, paving the way for a binding code of conduct to resolve the dispute in accordance with international laws and prevent conflict from flaring up.

Beijing has angered the ASEAN nations from time to time, asserting its claim to 90 per cent of the disputed waters. In May, the Chinese sent an oil drilling rig to waters claimed by Vietnam, sparking deadly anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam.

But in a move to mend ties last week, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said at the East Asia Summit that Beijing wants closer defence ties with ASEAN.

Dr Ng said countries should take China at its word.

Pointing out China's proposal to sign a treaty of cooperation with ASEAN nations and its offer to host a meeting with ASEAN defence ministers next year, he said: "These are gestures that (show) that China is reaching out and trying to establish dialogue and... confidence."

"We ought to respond positively to this," said Dr Ng, adding that Singapore would be happy to attend the informal summit and that he would encourage his ASEAN counterparts to do so.

Describing his visit to China - his second since 2012 - as productive, Dr Ng hailed the agreement between China and Singapore to put in place concrete measures to expand their defence ties.

Both sides have reached a four-point consensus on how both militaries will broaden bilateral cooperation.

This includes the two sides increasing the scope and frequency of joint war drills and widening training scenarios. Specifically, soldiers and sailors from Singapore and China will work more closely together in joint war games that can happen as often as every year.

Both militaries will also work together in areas such as counter-terrorism and maritime security, and set up closer links between military academies on both sides.

Singapore's closer ties with China will not exclude other countries such as those in ASEAN or the United States, which is trying to reconsolidate its influence in the region, said Dr Ng, who will be meeting his ASEAN counterparts in Myanmar later this week.

While Singapore is reluctant to play broker or mediator in any issue because it is a small nation, Dr Ng said, the Republic will make its voice heard to maintain regional peace and security.

"We do articulate our views very clearly... we want clear rules that everyone can follow, clear rules that provide stability, clear rules that facilitate disputes' peaceful resolution and international law."

This article was first published on Nov 16, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.