November 2, 2023
BEIJING – While the United States and China may not be ready to resolve their core differences, there are areas that they can work on that would build confidence, from the economy to defence and climate change, said Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen.
Most leaders would be hoping for continuity at an expected meeting between President Joe Biden and President Xi Jinping in the US later in November, he told reporters on Wednesday.
“In other words, whatever is achievable or has been agreed upon doesn’t get disrupted by balloon incidents or other issues,” said Dr Ng.
He was referring to the shooting down of a suspected Chinese spy balloon by the US in early 2023 that derailed ties.
Top-level dialogue between officials from both countries has picked up since June as bilateral relations thawed, paving the way for a possible Xi-Biden meeting on the sidelines of the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit in San Francisco.
If the meeting takes place, expectations should be kept realistic, said Dr Ng.
The US-China relationship is central to the region and globally, he added, but Beijing and Washington are far from the stage where they can aim for resolution of core differences.
There are, however, aspects that they both can agree on, which are achievable with some stretch, and would build confidence at various levels, he noted, citing the areas of economics, finance, defence, transnational threats such as climate change and the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict.
Dr Ng was speaking to reporters in Beijing, where he wrapped up a four-day trip after attending the 10th Beijing Xiangshan Forum and met top military officials from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
The Xiangshan Forum is a high-level security conference akin to the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, which Dr Ng attended for the fifth time.
The minister said the world needs both a strong US and a strong China, and a model that can accommodate a resident power and a rising one.
“Because both will continue to be strong, they will have to come to mutual accommodation… Without them coming together, our world would be very more dangerous and brittle,” he said.
Elaborating on the expected Xi-Biden meeting, Dr Ng said he was optimistic that there will be effective outcomes. “Coming out of Bali, I think both sides have an understanding that there’s more at stake,” he said, referring to the last time both leaders met at the Group of 20 Summit in Indonesia in November 2022.
During the interview, Dr Ng also took questions on other topics, ranging from the Israel-Hamas conflict to Singapore-China defence ties.
On whether China can play a role in the situation in Gaza, he said: “I’m not sure what the expectations are. I think that the problem is a very difficult one, and we’re really dealing with it week to week.”
He stressed that Singapore has made its stand clear in condemning the terrorist attacks by Hamas and affirming that Israel has a right to self-defence.
“But in acting out of self-defence, it also must conduct its operations with the highest regard for civilian lives as well as to comply with international law,” he added.
“I’m not sure who can be in a position to help realise those goals. But I think the world would welcome it, whoever it is, whether it’s China or some other country.”
Asked if recent exercises between the Singapore Armed Forces and the PLA meant that Singapore was moving closer to China, the minister replied: “Our bilateral exchanges with China are in the open… We’re not trying to send masked or cryptic smoke signals from our exercises.”
“Our basis for engaging any military in the world is the same – we believe that engagement is vital,” he said. “Because if you don’t, the risk of miscalculation, the risk of misunderstanding, the risk of wrong assessment increases.”
The two armies held an exercise in Singapore in September, just months after the two countries’ navies trained together in April at Changi Naval Base and in the southern reaches of the South China Sea.
Dr Ng said that in his meeting with Chinese Central Military Commission vice-chairman He Weidong on Tuesday, they reaffirmed their desire to increase such exchanges, and tasked their military commanders to see what more could be done.
When asked if the current vacant post of Chinese defence minister would hinder bilateral defence cooperation, Dr Ng said that ongoing initiatives will continue.
China has not appointed a replacement for General Li Shangfu, who was removed from the role in late October after reports that he was being investigated for graft.
“When you have a change of defence minister, it’s always a significant event, but I didn’t sense that they were in any state of crisis or turmoil. Things went on as normal and the Xiangshan Forum was very well-organised,” Dr Ng said.
“I think they will take it in their stride, and when it comes to bilateral relations, the agreements that we’ve signed are institutionalised. I think they will continue despite the change of personalities.”
Dr Ng believes the Xiangshan Forum, which had a record number of participants in 2023, will grow in importance and attract higher-level officials in future, even as the current attendance reflected the “configuration of China’s friends and partners”.
But this can change if the US and Western Europe recognise the forum’s importance and send more high-level participants, he said.
“The Shangri-La Dialogue was no different. We started not always with ministers attending, but now we have a good number of full ministers attending, and I expect the same will happen for the Xiangshan Forum.”
The Xiangshan Forum’s attendance also reflected the disposition of the global architecture, said Dr Ng. “(It) collects for itself China, Russia, its partners, the Global South… If you like, it’s a microcosm of what challenges the world faces.”
“I think any serious analyst looking at global affairs will agree that much more needs to be done about the Global South and emerging economies, and there seems now to be a line between that and the developed US and western Europe,” he added.
“That in itself is a friction point – a tectonic plate. If you don’t pay attention to it, you will lose the Global South… and without their buy-in and cooperation, we won’t be able to address global challenges, not least climate change.”