SINGAPORE – Small and middle-sized states are well-positioned to take on global challenges and advance key principles, and multilateral platforms such as Asean allow these countries to pool their resources to solve transnational problems.
To illustrate this point, Senior Minister of State for Defence Zaqy Mohamad noted how the Asean Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM)-Plus remains the only regional grouping in the defence sector in which both the United States and China are active dialogue partners, and participate alongside one another in military-to-military activities.
The ADMM-Plus is a dialogue that involves the 10 member-states of Asean and Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, Republic of Korea, Russia, and the US.
Mr Zaqy on Monday highlighted how the ADMM-Plus conducted a maritime security field training exercise in 2019, with participants from all 18 countries practising confidence-building measures.
“In this way, Asean Member States continue to play a key role in fostering mutual understanding and reducing the risk of miscalculation in the wider Asia-Pacific region,” he said, adding that the group has also collaborated on cyber defence.
Mr Zaqy was giving the keynote address at the opening ceremony of the 23rd Asia-Pacific Programme for Senior Military Officers, or Appsmo, at the Parkroyal on Beach Road.
The conference, which is organised by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), aims to improve participants’ knowledge of current affairs and their impact on the armed forces, as well as provide networking opportunities for senior military officers. Over the week-long event, participants will attend panel discussions and lectures by experts.
Touching on the conference’s theme – “The Return of Conventional War?” – Mr Zaqy noted that the ongoing conflict in Europe and tensions in the Asia-Pacific have brought back the focus on “conventional defence”, and put an end to the illusion of a post-Cold War “peace dividend”.
He shared how over the past decade, military spending in Asia-Pacific has increased by over 60 per cent, and world military expenditure has also surpassed US$2 (S$2.85) trillion for the first time last year, despite the Covid-19 pandemic. This trend will likely continue in light of the Russia-Ukraine war, he added.
Amidst a more polarised security environment, the multilateral system and the international rules-based order remain essential to small- and medium-sized countries for survival, stressed Mr Zaqy. Unlike great powers who have resources and influence to shape the world to suit their interests, small states and middle powers face greater constraints.
“Such states, including Singapore, would be exceptionally vulnerable in a world order based on ‘might is right’,” he said.
Many small states can trace their roots to small city-states which depended on a stable and open international order to flourish, said Mr Zaqy. For instance, Temasek, as Singapore was known in the 13th and 14th centuries, was a key node in a wider web of regional trade.
“Enmeshed within a putative global or regional order, small states have risen above their limitations, and are able to punch above their weight,” said Mr Zaqy.
Middle powers can also be influential by virtue of their regional stature and ability to exert soft power, and Mr Zaqy underscored how such countries have been able to exert influence by working with small and major powers.
He shared how in the late 1980s, Australia and Canada led the formation of the Cairns Group with 12 other countries in order to liberalise global agricultural trade and improve market access.