Singapore-China defence ties are getting stronger because of these latest developments

When you hear Ng Eng Hen speak Chinese, you know the relationship can't be bad.

By Chan Cheow Pong | February 7, 2018

China’s Defence Minister General Chang Wanquan is visiting Singapore from Feb. 4-8 for an official introductory visit and to attend the Singapore Airshow.

He met with Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen on Feb. 5 and both agreed to step up bilateral defence cooperation.

This marked another sign of warming defence relations between the two countries after ties were strained in 2016 when our Terrex vehicles were held by Hong Kong customs before it was eventually released.

Here’s what you need to know from the latest meetings between the two defence ministers.

1. Breaking new ground through enhanced Army and Navy cooperation

Singapore and China reached a four-point consensus on deepening military ties in Nov. 2014.

Four-Point Consensus on Strengthening Defence Cooperation

  1. Both sides will strengthen the healthy and steady development of their defence relationship based on mutual respect and accommodating each other’s security concerns for mutual trust.
  2. Both sides will enhance dialogue and mutual understanding through the conduct of regular high-level meetings and strategic consultation.
  3. Both sides will promote confidence building and mutual trust by strengthening practical cooperation, such as joint training exercises.
  4. Both sides will deepen people-to-people ties and friendship by increasing working-level exchanges and dialogues between both militaries.

Well, these statements may sound rather abstract and motherhood-ish, but it has become the basis for the steady progress of bilateral defence relations.

According to MINDEF’s press release, Chang has proposed to deepen ties in two areas:

  • Army cooperation, through the conduct of Exercise Cooperation in 2018 – 2019.
  • Navy cooperation, through port calls and other mutually beneficial interactions.

He also invited MINDEF and the SAF leadership to visit China and Ng has agreed to attend the Xiangshan Forum — China’s version of security dialogue that rivals the annual Shangri-la Dialogue — in Sept 2018.

When Chang met Ng in Beijing in Sept last year, he had said:

“Military ties are an important part of bilateral ties between the two countries, and China is willing to break new ground for cooperation with Singapore.”

Seen in this context, the latest developments indicate significant progress in defence cooperation.

2. Three meetings in less than five months between Defence Ministers: A sign of close ties

  • First meeting: Visit to Beijing by Ng in Sept. 2017

Ng was part of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s delegation that visited China last September.

While PM Lee journeyed on to Fujian on the next leg of his visit, Ng stayed back in Beijing and met with Chang, which he described later in his Facebook post as a “Successful Trip to Beijing for Defence Relations”.

  • Second Meeting: On the sidelines of ADMM and ADMM plus meetings in Philippines in Oct 2017

Source: MINDEF

Ng met with Chang again on the sidelines of the 11th ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting (ADMM) and 4th ADMM-Plus in the Philippines a month later.

  • Third meeting: Visit to Singapore by Chang in Feb 2018

A visibly happy Ng was seen in a video posted on his Facebook welcoming Chang to Singapore.

And when you hear Ng greeting “my good friend” Chang in Chinese and giving him a hug, it certainly seems like there’s some personal chemistry there.

Here’s what Ng wrote in his Facebook post:

“Happy and honoured to host my good friend, Chinese Minister of National Defense GEN Chang Wanquan on his official visit to Singapore. This is our 7th official meeting together.

In our meeting in 2014, we both signed the Four Point Consensus to step up military ties. Today, we agreed to further enhance interactions between the PLA and SAF.

I was very touched when he said to me during this visit, “Coming to Singapore, is not like going away, but visiting good friends in the same town”. Tonight, I host his delegation to dinner and I am sure we will enjoy it as close friends and wish each other good wishes for Chinese New Year.”

Ng also engaged in some durian diplomacy yesterday when he treated Chang to a “special durian treat” of Mao Shan Wang.

According to Ng, Chang had visited Singapore 12 years ago as a regional commander and had tasted durians for the first time. It was a taste he never forgot.

3. 4G PM contender Ong Ye Kung also hosted Chinese delegation

The bilateral relationship with China is one of our most important diplomatic relationships, hence it is crucial that key members of the 4th generation of leaders and other high potential political office holders are groomed to take over the reins of various aspects of the relationship in time to come.

Minister for Education (Higher Education and Skills) and Second Minister for Defence Ong Ye Kung, who is widely regarded as a 4G Prime Minister contender, shared a Facebook post on Feb. 5, showing pictures of him hosting Chang and his delegation to a lunch.

Ong is in line to lead his own ministry in the upcoming cabinet reshuffle, and it is possible that defence — a high profile portfolio could be entrusted to him.

Ong is known in the Chinese defence circuit. He has spoken at the Xiangshan Forum in Oct 2016.

Against the backdrop of warmer defence ties with China, Ong, if he goes on to become Defence Minister, will be in a good position to nurture Singapore-China defence cooperation to greater heights in future.

Top photo from MINDEF

Here’s a totally unrelated but equally interesting story:

Random trivia about Changi Airport you never needed to know

About Chan Cheow Pong

It took Cheow Pong two decades to recover from the trauma of memorising General Paper essays before he was ready to be an English writer. In between affliction and recovery, he thoroughly enjoyed his time writing in Chinese and doing Chinese translations.

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