A productive US-China détente & code of conduct in South China Sea: Ng Eng Hen’s wish list for rest of the decade

By Ng Eng Hen

Predictions on the future should rightly stay in the realm of clairvoyants or their less-gifted futurists. But the rest of us — political leaders included — can hope.

This is my wish list for security affairs in this decade. My expectations are realistic. I do not expect Santa’s elves to deliver finished goods wrapped in glossy, coloured paper. Improvements — even works in progress — would be welcome gifts. Here are my seven wishes:

1. A more coordinated and coherent global partnership against biological threats

Collectively, our world should have done better in dealing with Covid-19. From poorly coordinated early warnings and pandemic measures to disrupted global supply chains, unequal vaccine distribution and ineffectiveness against misinformation, the list goes on.

The death toll, which is over 5 million, is still rising. The rapid development of effective vaccines — the fastest in medical history — was literally a lifesaver. But we may not be so fortunate the next time a more infectious and virulent “Disease X” afflicts our human race. We need to get our act together on this front.

2. Laying the building blocks to deal with climate change

Misgivings among some quarters aside, COP26 signaled a global commitment to address the climate crisis. But to deal with this generation’s greatest existential threat that will affect tens if not hundreds of millions, we need to move from platitudes to constructing the building blocks that can effectively reduce carbon emissions. This will include international policies to change current civilian transport, energy, infrastructure and industrial systems to alternate forms that lower emissions. Central to this framework is financing, of which carbon pricing is a key component. Militaries, too, must play their part. As part of Singapore’s whole-of-government efforts, my ministry and the Singapore Armed Forces have concrete plans to reduce the growth of overall emissions by two-thirds by 2030.

3. A more productive U.S.-China détente

To deal with global issues, the U.S. and China need each other, and our world needs both. We recognise that their fundamental positions on many issues remain far apart, not least in their political governance and ideology. But the costs of rising antagonism will impoverish us all, and an actual physical confrontation would be catastrophic. Here is a wish for adroit and farsighted statesmanship to find common cause that will change the trajectory of relations to a better and more productive one.

4. Code of conduct in the South China Sea

The code of conduct is needed to deescalate tensions within the South China Sea. Despite strong exhortations from both the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China’s leaders for an expeditious and early conclusion, that has not materialised.

Covid-19 can be partially blamed, but there is no better time than the present to step up the momentum before actual mishaps occur. The code of conduct must be consistent with international law, and all signatory parties must commit to adhere to the agreement — both in spirit and practice.

5. Stronger action against forced migration and human trafficking

Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Even so, the scale of human suffering due to illegal or forced migration and trafficking remains unacceptable. This is a scourge on our humanity often afflicting those most vulnerable, women and children included. At the last count, 50,000 human trafficking victims were detected in some 148 countries. Actual numbers are likely to be much higher, with many child victims in West Africa, South Asia and Central America. The situation can worsen if food and water scarcity exacerbated by climate change precipitates famines and water wars. We must push for and support stronger action to alleviate the suffering of the innocent and exploited.

6. Guiderails for emerging technologies

Covid-19 accelerated the trend of digitisation and connectivity, but also our vulnerability to cyberattacks. The need for frameworks to prevent catastrophic failure of critical infrastructure, such as hospital systems, water plants and transport grids, has become more urgent.

In emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence, autonomous technologies and germ line genetic manipulations, adequate safeguards and monitoring are needed to prevent irresponsible use and ethical breaches. International collaboration via the U.N. and other multilateral frameworks, such as the AI Partnership for Defense, are necessary and should formulate guiderails and narrow corridors.

7. Safety and health to all

Let me end on a final wish: a safe and healthy New Year’s for all families. As Covid-19 has so dramatically reminded us, health is wealth, and we often take simple pleasures for granted, like sharing a meal or time with loved ones.

This article first appeared on Defensenews.com.

Cover photo credit: Ng Eng Hen Facebook page