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Fifth Plenary Session
The 16th Asia Security Summit, Singapore, 2–4 June 2017.

Fifth plenary session

Sunday 4 June 2017, 11:30


Mark Mitchell

Minister of Defence, New Zealand

Lieutenant-General Alexander Vasilyevich Fomin

Deputy Minister of Defence, Russia

Dr Ng Eng Hen

Minister for Defence, Singapore


The final plenary session provided an opportunity to connect the threads of previous discussions, and opened with a presentation by New Zealand’s Defence Minister, Mark Mitchell. He started by suggesting that multinational efforts optimised responses to global threats. He then observed that localised conventional challenges were no longer the norm, given the rising salience of North Korea’s nuclear and missile activity, transnational violent extremism and digital interconnectedness. Cyber capabilities have made links among attackers and targets potentially instantaneous, so that even relatively remote countries like New Zealand are susceptible to attack. Accordingly, New Zealand strongly supports the standing rules-based order and international norms, as reflected in its co-drafting of the widely supported United Nations Security Council Resolution 2286 on the protection of citizens.

As a maritime state – it has the world’s fourth-largest Exclusive Economic Zone and 95% of its goods are transported by sea – New Zealand strongly supports freedom of navigation and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). More particularly, as over half of its trade transits the South China Sea, New Zealand backs the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Code of Conduct there. Beyond these formal positions, New Zealand had been an active player for 14 years in the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) under the auspices of the Biketawa Declaration. It also, with Australia, established the Building Partner Capacity training mission in Iraq as part of the US-led Operation Inherent Resolve. Wellington favours constructive discussion followed by ‘real action’. It rejects the view that threats have overwhelmed opportunities and takes an optimistic view of regional affairs, Mitchell said.


Lieutenant-General Alexander Vasilyevich Fomin, Russia’s deputy defence minister, said that the world was becoming more complicated and harder to predict. He also noted that trust and compromise were more difficult to forge, and that conflict, transborder crime and proliferation were jeopardising sustainable development. Pointedly, he added that disregard for national traditions and ideologies through intervention was also destabilising. Russia has supported the Assad regime to check the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, which gained strength due to power vacuums. Following the ‘liberation’ of Aleppo, Russia is now providing humanitarian assistance and help in demining and other explosive ordnance disposal. It is also providing medical assistance, as well as enforcing local ceasefires, arranging for humanitarian access and facilitating refugees’ voluntary return.

In Fomin’s view, transnational terrorism remains a dangerous threat in the Asia-Pacific, especially because of the threat from indigenous combatants returning from Middle East conflict zones, as well as from pre-existing terrorist organisations and infrastructure. Russia supports the expansion and consolidation of regional counter-terrorism efforts through the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meetings-Plus (ADMM-Plus) and ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) counter-terrorism centres. Another major threat is North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programmes. The tensions they have produced needs to be channelled into a negotiation framework. Russia considers that the United States’ Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missile defence deployment has only ‘aggravated’ existing problems on the Korean Peninsula, Fomin said.

More broadly, Fomin said, the nature of threats has changed rapidly since the end of the Cold War, and this change has challenged the capacity of regional organisations to deal with instability. But balance is still required. While any regional security architecture must embrace the concept of indivisible security, it must also recognise the principle of non-interference in internal affairs, as ASEAN does. Russia is following the Uniform Code of Conduct in the Asia-Pacific, and may provide demining help in Cambodia, based on its experience. Russia stresses naval cooperation, and the Russian Navy is active in the region, making port call in many Asia-Pacific countries. Overall, Moscow wants the Asia-Pacific to be a balanced, stable and safe region, and considers this a feasible objective and is open to working with regional and major powers to achieve it.


The final speaker was Dr Ng Eng Hen, Singapore’s defence minister. Ng asserted Singapore’s commitment to dialogue and the rules-based order, which he regarded as conducive to security and prosperity and to the advancement of states of any size. More soberly, he noted that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) had been the first casualty of a Trump administration determined to rethink the rules-based order. TPP 11, which covers countries representing 13% of global GDP, was a good alternative, though to an extent overshadowed by China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) initiative, which Singapore – as a strategic node on the ‘Maritime Silk Road’ – supports. If BRI were achieved, it would send Asia on a favourable trajectory. Ng elaborated that Singapore’s future was linked inextricably to global trade, as its trade volume is three-and-a-half times its GDP. He held, echoing Lee Kuan Yew, that open and free trade prevents major conflict by enabling a multiplicity of nations to prosper. To this end, ASEAN overall needs to elevate its GDP; TPP 11, BRI and a possible trade pact between ASEAN and the European Union may help.

The minister added that North Korean nuclear and missile activity and transnational terrorism could profoundly imperil regional stability. Singapore favours diplomacy with respect to North Korea. The terrorism threat is likely to increase as fighters return to the region from the Middle East. To mitigate this problem, intelligence cooperation and information-sharing are vital, and Singapore has made advances in these areas by providing assistance via its Information Fusion Centre to the Sulu Sea patrols by initiating plans (on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue) to share terrorist threat information through the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA), and by participating in Malacca Straits Patrol and ADMM-Plus maritime security and counter-terrorism exercises. Singapore is also promoting an ASEAN–China maritime exercise to deepen cooperation, and is proposing that ADMM-Plus meet annually rather than just biennially.


The three ministerial presentations stimulated a range of probing questions. Argentinian Secretary for Foreign Affairs Pedro Villagra Delgado asked for further comments on the link between trade and security. Christopher Nelson, Fellow for US–Asia Relations at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, asked whether TPP 11 had a reasonable chance of success if the Trump administration remained hostile to it. Nelson raised for discussion the possibility of a dual freeze dispensation between North Korea and its adversaries. Several participants – including IISS Senior Fellow William Choong as well as Nelson – wondered why Russia was so worried about THAAD. Choong also asked whether Russia’s eastward turn was in effect a pivot to China. Colonel Zhu Qichao of China’s National University of Defence Technology elicited views on how Russia might contribute to Northeast Asia’s strategic stability and to international cyber security. Malaysian Member of Parliament Nurul Izzah Anwar queried whether the Astana process could lead to peace in Syria. Richard Lloyd Parry, Asia editor of The Times, inquired whether the FPDA might expand its remit or membership, while Chilean Under Secretary of Defence Marcos Robledo Hoecker asked about the prospects for his country to join the ARF.

In his response, Mitchell said he would welcome American re-engagement on TPP 11 and applauded the FPDA’s new focus on counter-terrorism and maritime security. Fomin indicated that Russia considered THAAD useful for launching offensive as well as defensive missiles, underlined Russia’s view that non-military, economic inducements should be used to draw North Korea into peaceful negotiations, and suggested that Russia’s support for the Assad regime turned on counter-terrorism and regional stability priorities. He declined to take sides on South China Sea issues, pushing a negotiated code of conduct. Ng, on his part, stressed the relationship between the recognition of norms and legitimacy, and stated that this consideration constrained the expansion of the FPDA’s remit. But he also noted that the ADMM-Plus framework was more pragmatic and flexible, and that its joint exercises could conceivably be enlarged to include additional nations or regional groups within practical limits. In conclusion, Singapore’s defence minister suggested that Japan and Australia, among other countries, had invested substantial political capital in the original TPP, which fuelled some optimism about TPP 11.

Pedro Villagra Delgado, Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Argentina Christopher Nelson, Fellow for US–Asia Relations at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation Dr William Choong, Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow, IISS–Asia
Colonel Zhu Qichao, National University of Defence Technology, China  Nurul Izzah Anwar, Malaysian Member of Parliament Richard Lloyd Parry, Asia editor of The Times Marcos Robledo Hoecker, Under Secretary of Defence, Chile
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