It’s a pleasure to be attending my second Shangri-la Dialogue and great to return to Singapore – a place I always feel at home.
Our countries have much in common as islands, trading states and proud maritime powers. We share a history, a set of values, a future.
And across this region we glimpse exciting possibilities, whether through the advance of technology or trade, with £3 trillion a year passing through the South China Sea. This is a future we want to be part of.
Predicting that future is an art not a science one reason today’s topic ‘making Defence policy in uncertain times’ is unlikely to produce easy answers.
Indeed, our Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), published last year, showed this unpredictability increasing.
Today we’re witnessing the resurgence of state-based threats such as Russia, the rise of non-state actors like Daesh and the increasing aggression of rogue countries.
At the same time, our adversaries are developing new methods and mechanisms for waging war, whether cyber or hybrid.
How can we respond?
Not through appeasement or, by burying our heads in the sand. That would only reward aggression, placing us in greater danger, but by standing up for what we believe in.
And, since we lack the luxury of picking and choosing our adversaries, we must be ready for anything.
That’s why our SDSR gives us bigger defence with greater capability, a larger Land Division, two carriers sailing these seas in the 2020s, fifth generation F35s, more Typhoons in service, cutting edge unmanned ariel vehicles and our nuclear deterrent.
Yet the success of our overall deterrence – our ability to convince aggressors the reward for attack is outweighed by the cost – doesn’t hinge on military might alone, but diplomatic, economic, legal, technological and covert muscle.
So our SDSR delivers an integrated approach with new policy-making and delivery Joint Units, uniting diplomatic and defence expertise to develop and implement policy.
Our cross-Government Counter-Daesh Task Force shows how integration works in practice with different departments combining to shut down Daesh’s online presence, stop its financial support, prevent its fighters crossing our borders and counter its poisonous ideology.
Yet, at a time of growing global threats, we can’t go it alone.
Not when countries and religions who feel denied, what they see as, their due place in the world are becoming increasing assertive, looking to redraw the map or belligerently impose their views.
This isn’t just happening in our European backyard but here in the Indo-Pacific with North Korea flouting UN resolutions and testing nuclear weapons, with terror concerns underlined by last year’s Bangkok bombing, with territorial disputes and a host of other non-traditional security threats from shifts in demography to the effects of climate change.
Such challenges threaten to advance an arc of instability across South East Asia.
We believe the only way to mitigate such threats is by shoring up our Rules-Based International Order
That’s why, under the guidance of our SDSR, UK Defence has become “international-by-design”.
What does that mean?
First, it means doing more with our partners to deliver our national security goals.
We’re deepening our strategic relationships not just with our primary allies the US or with France and Germany but with allies here in the region.
And we see potential in collaborating on capabilities as well as operations, helping spread the burden of security and drive down cost.
We’re strengthening multilateral institutions too.
We’re at the fulcrum of Nato – and besides choosing to maintain our 2 per cent spend, we’re supporting Baltic and Afghan missions, and, joining the US in urging the Alliance to adapt.
We’re pushing the EU to flex its financial, diplomatic and legal muscle as it has with Russia.
We’re doubling our peacekeeping support to the UN.
And, as the SDSR confirmed, we’re reaffirming our commitment to the Asia-Pacific.
We’re proud to play a full role in the Five Power Defence Arrangements – still the only formal multi-lateral defence arrangement in South East Asia.
Meanwhile, to realise the economic, as well as defence benefits of our international friendships, we’re investing in Defence engagement, expanding our footprint, establishing a British Defence Staff in the Asia Pacific, increasing training places on our renowned military courses and embedding liaison officers in the Regional HADR Co-ordination Centre here in Singapore to support nations in times of need.
Coupled with our regionally aligned brigades, our defence garrison in Brunei, our message is simple. We’re here to stay. We’re ready to help.
My second point is international-by-design demands a Shangri-La speciality dialogue.
One hundred years on from the Battle of the Somme in WW1, we’re reminded of the bitter price Europe paid when nations stopped talking.
So we’re backing international efforts to maintain the momentum of the peace accords in the Philippines.
We’re helping the Burmese government deliver its peace process.
And we’re concerned about the tensions in the South China Sea. As G7 heads of government made clear last weekend, we are committed to maintaining a Rules Based Maritime order in accordance with the principles of international law, as reflected in UNCLOS.
To be clear, we are not taking sides. We don’t support the claims of any claimant over another. Our commitment is to the Rules-based International System, international law, and the maintenance of freedom of navigation and overflight – both of which we consider non-negotiable.
We expect all parties to avoid actions which could further raise tensions, and to implement the UNCLOS tribunal’s ruling. We urge the resumption of peaceful negotiations, including on a binding code of conduct in the South China Sea.
Thirdly, international-by-design means acting as well as talking especially when it comes to tackling international terrorism.
We all face threats from foreign fighters and radicalisation within our countries.
So we’re working regionally to share information, counter-radicalisation and investigate potential terror plots.
We’re joining forces to protect the global commons and safeguard the “virtual commons” of the cyber sphere.
More broadly, we’re increasingly operating in combined formations to speed up our response.
Last month we tested our Combined Joint Expeditionary Force with the French.
Next year we command Nato’s Very-High-Readiness Joint Task Force.
And, here in Asia, our Royal Air Force Typhoons will be flying in for Exercise Bersama Lima after which we plan for them to visit Japan and the Republic of Korea.
Finally, we’re making sure we leverage our diplomatic as well as military clout, alongside partners, to stop North Korea’s dangerous pursuit of nuclear weapons. That means exerting sanctions on the regime to respect international norms.
The UK was instrumental in helping draft the latest UN Security Council Resolution 2270, containing some of the toughest measures yet, restricting technology transfers and impeding efforts to secure a deployable nuclear weapon.
So to make Defence policy in uncertain times, to avoid nasty surprises, it’s in the interests of all regional powers to abide by international norms and intensify engagement between their Armed Forces. And this is about more than security.
In recent times, Asia-Pacific has enjoyed unprecedented prosperity because of stability underpinned by the rules-based system. The evidence is there for all to see.
When planes fly and ships sail, trade flourishes providing opportunity and prosperity for all.