Practical ways needed to defuse incidents in the South China Sea, Singapore’s defence chief Ng Eng Hen says

Mechanisms must be in place to prevent non-military confrontations in the disputed sea, Ng says

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 October, 2016, 6:21pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 October, 2016, 11:34pm

Countries need to look for practical ways to defuse incidents in the South China Sea, where China is pitted against smaller neighbours in multiple disputes over islands, Singapore’s defence minister said.

Ng Eng Hen told reporters on Friday on the sidelines of a meeting in Hawaii that incidents may not necessarily involve military ships. He noted navies have established protocols for when they encounter each other at sea.

Instead, confrontations may develop between fishing vessels or other civilian ships, the defence minister said.

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Defence ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and US Defence Secretary Ash Carter talked at their Hawaii meeting about ways to prevent such incidents from escalating, Ng said.

Our main interest is, either with or without a ruling, how do you make sure the region is still stable and to make sure you actually have mechanisms to prevent any escalations
Singapore’s defence minister Ng Eng Hen

His remarks came amid an escalating spat between China and Singapore over its supposed insistence on including Philippines’ position on the an international arbitration on claims in the South China Sea during the Non-Aligned Movement summit held in Venezuela last month.

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Prominent defence adviser last week accused Singapore of playing an active role in turning the South China Sea row into an international issue in recent years and said Beijing should impose sanctions and retaliate against Singapore to make the city-state “pay the price for seriously damaging China’s interests”.

“It’s inevitable for China to strike back ... Since Singapore has gone thus far, we have got to do something, be it retaliation or sanction. We must express our discontent,” Professor Jin Yinan told China National Radio on Thursday.

Singapore does not have any claims to disputed islands, but Ng said it’s interested in the issue because the South China Sea is a major shipping route and many economies depend on it.

China claims virtually the entire South China Sea as its own, citing historical reasons. That has pitted it against the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, all members of Asean.

China has recently developed shoals and coral reefs into seven islands with massive land reclamation work. Some of the islands have airstrips capable of handling military aircraft.

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In July, an international arbitration tribunal ruled against China’s claims, saying they were illegal. Beijing has rejected the ruling and continued its activities.

Ng said the tribunal’s ruling is law, but there are “practical concerns” to consider.

“For Singapore, a non-claimant sate, our main interest is, either with or without a ruling, how do you make sure the region is still stable and to make sure you actually have mechanisms to prevent any escalations?” he said.

Carter told reporters he and his counterparts discussed improving coordination and cooperation between their militaries to keep the region’s waterways open. He said he asked the heads of the US Navy and US Coast Guard to hold a meeting with Asean partners next year to share their best practices for maritime security.