SINGAPORE, June 13 — The world has become a more dangerous place since 2019, with deepening divide and receding global cooperation as countries emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, said Singapore’s Minister for Defence Ng Eng Hen.

Against this backdrop, Ng said on Sunday (June 12) during the last plenary session of the Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia needs to learn the “right lessons” of pre-emption and prevention from the war in Ukraine, in order to avoid any potential calamity in its own backyard.

Separately in response to questions from the media in wrapping up the three-day security summit, Ng said that while conflicts cannot be solved overnight through one dialogue, such in-person meetings nonetheless add value to diplomatic relations.

Deepening divide, hardening security alliances

Ng said that since the Shangri-La Dialogue last convened in 2019, divisions have deepened along many lines, including but not limited to ideology, alliances and even in terms of public health, with a stark contrast observed in Covid-19 vaccination rates in rich and poor countries.

He said this was compounded by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which had impacted the price and supply of wheat, fuel and metals.

“Inflation coupled with supply shocks put millions, especially among the poor, at risk in all countries, for access and affordability to essential food and commodities. In sum, countries have turned more inward,” said Ng.

This would give rise to setbacks for responses to pressing global challenges such as climate change, human trafficking and terrorism.

He also pointed to how security alliances are hardening, with security arrangements and military capabilities being built up among various groups.

“Defence spending in Europe will increase. Already, six Nato member states have pledged increases of about US$133 billion (RM585 billion) thus far,” he said, referring to the military alliance between 30 member states across Europe and North America.

For the Asia-Pacific, it has already increased by more than 60 per cent over the last decade, he said.

As a result of the convergence of these factors, Ng said: “It is not an exaggeration that we now stand at a potentially dangerous point in our history.”

Asia needs to build strategic trust to ‘avoid calamity’

Ng laid out two areas of focus to change trajectories and avert disaster.

On the Ukraine war, he pointed to how a protracted conflict will be disastrous on both sides.

Russia would require “a significant build-up of soldiers and armaments” if they were to further their objectives, he said, which would exert financial toll and great political risks. Meanwhile for Ukraine, a prolonged war will test “the continued support of international leaders and incumbents”.

“I state the obvious but a cessation of hostilities would provide reprieve to all sides,” said Ng.

Closer to home in Asia, the defence minister called upon regional countries to “heed the passionate and poignant advice from President (Volodymyr) Zelensky for pre-emption and prevention”.

“Asia must learn the right lessons from Ukraine,” he said. “Once conflict breaks out, it is too late.”

And while Asian countries have expressed respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity of others as a core tenet of foreign relations, he said “we must ensure our deeds match our words if we are to avoid a calamity like Ukraine”.

Strengthening existing establishments like ADMM-plus and stepping up engagements within and beyond the region are among concrete steps needed.

ADMM-plus refers to Asean Defence Ministers’ Meeting with eight dialogue partners, namely Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Republic of Korea, Russia and the United States.

“Building confidence and strategic trust in one another is the core of pre-emption. We must continue to emphasise inclusivity and multilateralism,” he said.

Value of Shangri-La Dialogue

In an interview with the media to wrap up the three-day security summit, Ng said that the Shangri-La Dialogue has added value by being a platform through which many defence ministers met in person for the first time.

This includes the first face-to-face meetings between General Wei Fengwei of China and Lloyd Austin of the US, something which Asian countries took comfort in, he said.

While the dialogue saw the two superpowers exchanging barbs during their respective plenary speeches, Ng said at least it was now clear where exactly the two “agree to disagree on”, such as on the issue of Taiwan.

Ng said it would be a stretch to expect their engagements over one dialogue to improve relations.

Similarly in response to a reporter’s question on why there was no concrete achievement or plan arising from the summit, Ng said: “Don’t expect after a dialogue, suddenly there is a communique saying there’s peace... it never happens like that.”

He pointed out how the end of the Cold War took decades of meetings and arguments.

“But the question to be asked is, in the absence of it, are you better off or not?” he said. “And I think for this Shangri-La Dialogue, it would have been worse off.”

It is the search for compromise and common ground that helps in diplomatic efforts, he said. — TODAY