Ng Eng Hen
Dr Ng Eng Hen at IMDEX Asia. Photo: MOD, Singapore

China and its Asian neighbours must work at resolving conflicts, as war in the region would have an impact on container shipping, said Singapore’s defence minister, Ng Eng Hen, yesterday.

Dr Ng was speaking at the opening of the 13th International Maritime Defence Exhibition and Conference Asia (IMDEX Asia) in Singapore yesterday.

“Thirty percent of the world’s seaborne trade passes through the South China Sea each year,” he said. “One quarter of global oil trade and one third of global container trade passes through the Straits of Malacca and Singapore. We sit astride a key sea line of communication, and if conflict were to destabilise our region, it would have far-reaching implications.”

To mitigate conflict in Asia, Dr Ng urged China and Asean countries to agree a code of conduct based on the UN Convention Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The minister noted: “The world is dependent on China as a major manufacturer for sundry goods and many essentials. No transnational global challenge can be dealt with without China’s input. For instance, beyond the reduction of carbon emissions to address climate change, all momentum behind electric car developments could stall without cobalt, lithium and nickel, of which China controls around three-quarters of the market.”

Given the stakes involved, Dr Ng said, China and its neighbours must commit to maintaining a rules-based order to guide interactions in the maritime domain, noting that, despite being more than 20 years since China and Asean agreed a code of conduct based on UNCLOS, nothing concrete had been firmed.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is now into its 15th month, and the world cannot afford to have a concurrent war in Asia, he said.

“The top priority for all government leaders is to avoid a physical conflict in Asia. Should that calamity ever befall us, whatever the cause, the world as we know it will be radically changed and, indeed, impoverished. Simultaneous war in Europe and Asia will be disastrous for all of us.”

He said many Asian countries had strengthened their coast guards and patrols in contested waters, a situation that has resulted in more patrol vessels than naval ships. This situation could result in mis-steps, and patrol vessel collisions have occurred.

Dr Ng concluded: “Countries need to give attention to increasing collaboration and co-ordination among coast guards and similar agencies to ensure such incidents are averted. Collectively, we must keep our sea lines of communication free and safe for routine business.”

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