Singapore, China ink pact to set up bilateral defence hotline

China has similar hotlines with other countries such as the United States, Japan and South Korea.

Lim Min Zhang

Lim Min Zhang

The Straits Times


Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen (right) and his Chinese counterpart Li Shangfu meeting at the Mindef headquarters in Bukit Gombak on June 1. ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

June 2, 2023

SINGAPORE – The defence establishments of Singapore and China inked an agreement on Thursday to set up a hotline meant to strengthen high-level communication between defence leaders from both sides.

The signing took place after a meeting between Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen and his Chinese counterpart Li Shangfu, who is in Singapore for his first Shangri-La Dialogue security forum this weekend after being appointed in March.

The hotline is known as a “secure defence telephone link” in official documents, and the signing of an agreement to put it into effect was witnessed by the two leaders after they co-chaired the 2nd Singapore-China Defence Ministers’ Dialogue at the Ministry of Defence (Mindef).

Thursday’s meeting was the first official one between the two ministers.

As part of his introductory visit to Singapore, General Li inspected a guard of honour at the Mindef headquarters in Bukit Gombak after he was received by Dr Ng with a warm handshake.

Gen Li, who is an aerospace engineer by training, was appointed Defence Minister in March following a Cabinet reshuffle. He is also a state councillor and the former chief of the Equipment Development Department overseeing military technology.

His predecessor, General Wei Fenghe, and Dr Ng had in June 2022 held the first Singapore-China Defence Ministers’ Dialogue, which resulted in pacts that furthered cooperation in professional and academic exchanges.

On Thursday, Dr Ng and Gen Li reaffirmed their commitment towards strengthening defence cooperation as agreed upon under the enhanced Agreement on Defence Exchanges and Security Cooperation, said Mindef in a statement after the meeting that lasted for more than two hours.

They also discussed global and regional security issues, and practical ways to strengthen Asean-China defence cooperation under the Asean Defence Ministers’ Meeting-Plus, a grouping that involves China as one of eight dialogue partners of Asean.

Other than the ministers, officials who attended the meeting on Thursday included Singapore’s Chief of Defence Force, Rear-Admiral Aaron Beng, and Permanent Secretary for Defence Chan Heng Kee. On China’s side, they included Chinese Ambassador to Singapore Sun Haiyan and Lieutenant-General Jing Jianfeng, Deputy Chief of the Joint Staff Department.

Mindef said the hotline is a high-level line of communication that is important for strengthening mutual understanding and trust. The initiative falls under one of the areas of cooperation outlined in the 2019 enhanced Agreement on Defence Exchanges and Security Cooperation to strengthen ties between the two defence establishments.

Among other things, the pact committed both sides to maintaining high-level communications and conducting more regular academic exchanges among military academies and think-tanks, as well as scaling up bilateral exercises.

General Li Shangfu (third from left) inspecting a guard of honour at the Mindef headquarters in Bukit Gombak on June 1. He was accompanied by Dr Ng Eng Hen (fourth from left). ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

China has similar hotlines with other countries such as the United States, Japan and South Korea. The China-Japan hotline began operating in May and is regarded as a way to build trust and manage potential crises.

A trial on a security hotline between China and the 10 Asean countries in 2023 is also reportedly in the works to manage disputes in the South China Sea – a vital waterway where overlapping maritime claims have been a source of regional tension.

Mindef said Gen Li’s visit underscored the longstanding, warm and friendly bilateral defence relations between Singapore and China.

He is expected to call on Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong and be hosted to dinner by Senior Minister Teo Chee Hean during his five days in Singapore. He also visited the Multi-Mission Range Complex at Pasir Laba as part of his programme.

The Chinese leader is among the headline speakers in his first outing at the Shangri-La Dialogue, where he is expected to give a speech on Sunday, titled China’s New Security Initiatives. The three-day security summit is expected to draw more than 550 delegates from over 40 countries.

The spokesman for China’s Ministry of Defence, Senior Colonel Tan Kefei, told reporters on Thursday that the two defence ministers had “candid, in-depth and productive strategic communication” during the meeting.

Besides exchanging views on state-to-state and military-to-military relations, the regional security situation and issues of shared interest, Gen Li reaffirmed China’s firm positions on the Taiwan question during the meeting, Senior Col Tan said at the Shangri-La hotel.

Gen Li said: “Taiwan is China’s Taiwan, and the Taiwan question is the core of the core interests of China.

“We will continue to strive for peaceful reunification with the greatest sincerity and utmost effort, but we will never tolerate any attempt of the Democratic Progressive Party authorities to solicit foreign support in seeking Taiwan independence, nor will we tolerate any attempt of external forces to use Taiwan to contain China.”

On China-Asean relations, Senior Col Tan said Gen Li pointed out that Asean is an important force for safeguarding peace and promoting development, adding that China firmly supports Asean centrality in regional architecture, the community-building of Asean, and its strategic independence.

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