Rules-based order is key to stability in Indo-Pacific, say defence chiefs in Singapore

(From left) Mr Carlito Galvez Jr, senior undersecretary and officer-in-charge of the Philippines’ Department of National Defence; IISS director-general John Chipman, British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, and Canadian Defence Minister Anita Anand. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

SINGAPORE, June 4 (The Straits Times/ANN): Upholding international law and continued cooperation are key to maintaining stability in the Indo-Pacific region, said defence officials from the Philippines, Canada and Britain at the Shangri-La Dialogue security summit on Saturday.

“Good fences make good neighbours,” said Mr Carlito Galvez Jr, senior undersecretary and officer-in-charge of the Philippines’ Department of National Defence, at a plenary session. “It is only when neighbours have clear boundaries and respect for set boundaries that relations remain genuinely amicable.”

The Philippines is among several claimant states in the region – including Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam – which are challenging China’s claim over about 90 per cent of the South China Sea.

In 2016, Manila won an arbitral case brought before a tribunal in The Hague, which rejected Beijing’s claim and ruled that the eastern part of the disputed waters, which Filipinos call the West Philippine Sea, belongs to the Philippines.

China has refused to recognise this ruling and has increased its military presence and artificial island-building activities in the disputed waterway.

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr continues to hold talks with China, his country’s largest trading partner, on incidents in the South China Sea, but he has also sought to bolster security ties with allies like Australia, Japan and the United States to counter Beijing’s growing influence in the region.

While Mr Galvez, a retired army general, did not specifically mention China in his speech, he referred to the 2016 ruling as “an inspiration” for how such conflicts can be handled by other states facing similar challenges.

“International law is the main equaliser among states,” he said.

Canada’s Defence Minister Anita Anand said a stable and balanced Indo-Pacific meant a region where international rules and norms prevail, all actors engage responsibly and disputes are resolved peacefully, and a region “that is free, that is open and that is inclusive”.

She also said that while Canada would cooperate with China to find solutions on global issues and keep communication lines open, it would also challenge Beijing when its conduct increases regional instability.

“China is an increasingly disruptive global power that increasingly disregards international rules and norms,” she noted.

Chinese military delegate Tang Yongsheng, who was in the audience, questioned Ms Anand on why China was considered disruptive when it had made great efforts to maintain peace and stability in the region.

In response, Ms Anand cited China’s increasing militarisation in the South China Sea and dangerous interceptions by Chinese aircraft of Canadian air force planes which were in international airspace on missions to monitor United Nations sanctions on North Korea.

“Canada will continue to ensure that we are working on open lines of communication and recognising the need to co-exist responsibly,” she added.

Britain’s Defence Secretary Ben Wallace agreed that a rules-based order ensures “fair play” and is one of the main ways of maintaining stability in the Indo-Pacific area.

He also said that the world’s maritime activities should “stick as close as possible” to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, an international treaty adopted in 1982 and signed by 167 states and the European Union.

“Rules are agnostic of a nation’s military or economic power,” he said during the plenary session, reiterating that rules applied equally whether a nation was powerful or weak, rich or poor.

He also advocated free trade and continued engagement with China, noting that the world’s most fundamental issues, such as climate change, food security and nuclear proliferation, cannot be solved without its involvement. - The Straits Times/ANN

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