“We are not in a comfortable place. The temperature is not boiling, but certainly rising," Minister for Defence Ng Eng Hen said on Feb. 18, at the 59th Munich Security Conference (MSC), pointing out how physical conflicts may arise, even if parties don't wish for them to happen.
Ng highlighted whether a physical conflict between the U.S. and China is inevitable, and how it can precipitate a war.
Is a conflict between US and China inevitable in the next decade?
President Biden said the U.S. “is not looking for conflict”, after the recent downing of the balloon, Ng pointed out.
Likewise, President Xi’s said at the recent G20 Summit in Bali that China and the US need to have a sense of responsibility for history, for the world and for the people and have to explore the right way to get along with each other and put the relationship on the right course.
However, Ng points out that this mindset may not be coherent.
When he was testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2021, former Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) Commander ADM(Rtd) Phillip S. Davidson said he thought a war would occur in the next six years, citing Taiwan as the precipitating factor.
Another example cited by Ng happened just last month when US Air Force Commander of the Air Mobility Command Mike Minihan wrote in an internal memo to his staff saying, “I hope I am wrong. My gut tells me we will fight in 2025.”
A Chinese top military leader and former ViceChairman of the Central Military Commission GEN, Xu Qiliang, also claimed in the book of official commentaries on the 20th Party Congress report that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is "an arrow, pulled and ready to go".
Increasing military presence in Asia
Ng highlighted that there has been increasing military presence in Asia in which "pre-positioning for deterrence is alive and well, but even then, the war drums have not started beating audibly."
On top of that, the recent US access to northern Philippines bases, the build-up of counterstrike capabilities in Japan, and missile defence drills in South Korea "could all be read as preparation by the Chinese", Ng stated.
On the flip side, PLA's defence spending has gone up for the seventh year. Also, the recent massive display of armaments at the People’s Republic of China (PRC)’s 70th-anniversary military parade was meant to "signal and display their significant progress".
China has also actively increased their military presence in the South China Sea (SCS) and Taiwan Straits.
Taiwan may trigger it
Ng subsequently posed a second question on the likely cause of conflict between the two nations.
"What might precipitate a physical conflict, even if both sides do not want one?"
The answer is Taiwan. One way is in which Taiwan is placed as a "bellwether of contest between autocracies and democracies" and the other is fighting over strategic resources such as Taiwan's supply of high-end chips to the world.
So, a move towards Taiwanese independence will trigger a conflict, Ng said.
"The status quo of Taiwan in the present situation has served us well and kept the peace. Quite obviously, China will act or be forced to act, if that is changed. Why? Because it will be seen as another chapter of unequal treaties forced upon China, and no Chinese leader can stand to accept that."
However, Ng said that "accidents or incidents can occur", citing the example of the Hainan Island incident in 2001 where a US Navy EP-3 plane crashed into a PLA Navy fighter jet, resulting in the death of the Chinese pilot and the US crew being detained for 11 days.
"We are not in a comfortable place. The temperature is not boiling, but certainly rising. We must do all we can to cool it. War in Asia will be devastating, not only for Asia but globally. The reasons for war do not justify any in Asia. The stakes are not worth it, the consequences are disastrous and viable alternatives do exist."
59th Munich Security Conference
The MSC is an annual high-level security conference that brings together heads of government, defence and foreign ministers, parliamentarians, military leaders, and security experts from around the world.
This year’s MSC covers a wide range of important security issues such as geopolitical and security developments in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East, and other security issues pertaining to defence cooperation, international trade and climate security.
Top image via SG Press Centre.