It’s a pleasure to be here for my first Shangri-la Dialogue, on the occasion of Singapore’s 50th birthday.
And it’s an opportunity to pay tribute to Singapore’s founding father, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.
Margaret Thatcher said of the former Prime Minister:
There is no other world leader…whom I have admired more for the strength of his convictions, the clarity of his view, the directness of his speech and for his vision of the way ahead
And when we look at this island, a dynamo of effort, energy, and private enterprise, based on the constant determination to maintain local stability, we can see he left the proudest of legacies.
I’m also delighted to be back in Asia.
A region with which we have immensely strong bonds.
Not just because we are major trading partners with long standing military connections and an extensive set of global partnerships providing goods and services.
Not just because we are co-operating closely in a whole range of other areas, from combating extremism to preventing natural disasters.
But because the vast majority of nations in this region share the same universal values of tolerance, of justice, of respect for global stability.
Yet it is precisely those values that are now under threat.
The world is becoming an altogether darker, more dangerous place.
In Europe we’ve seen the resurgence of old threats, an aggressive Russia annexing Crimea, agitating in Ukraine and conducting long-range air activity.
In the Middle East and Africa we’ve witnessed the rise of a new deadly phenomenon.
With extremist non-state actors like ISIL and Boko Haram, attempting to establish their own state entities, while laying waste to countless lives and destroying some of civilisation’s most precious property.
And here in Asia, North Korea continues to justify its rogue state status.
Sovereignty disputes in the south and east China Seas and associated efforts at land reclamation, whatever their intent, are only likely to increase regional tensions and the very real risk of miscalculation.
None of these problems can be dismissed as mere local difficulties.
As wealth and power in the region continues to grow, the reality is that nations’ decisions either to reinforce or to undermine the international rules based order will become a world wide, not regional, consideration. And as global actors, the UK, and other nations, have legitimate concerns about what is happening in this region.
The UK, for example, exports some £39 billion to East Asia alone.
So regional tensions have potentially global consequences.
Today’s topic, “how regional tensions may be prevented from breaking out into open conflict” is apt indeed.
UK experience in tackling tensions
The UK is no stranger to tackling instability whether in the Balkans or Afghanistan.
And, I believe, 3 lessons from our experiences can help shape our discussions today.
1. Stand up, speak out
First, we must always speak out against aggression and causes of instability. We should not be intimidated into simply remaining silent and we would strongly support other nations who think the same way.
As a global player with the fifth largest economy and one of the world’s largest defence budgets, not to mention a member of the P5, the G7, NATO and the EU, we believe it’s vital to stand up for the values we share.
The British government takes no position on the underlying sovereignty claims in the south and east China Seas.
But we are clear that provocative behavior, in the air, or at sea, or in cyber space, challenges the stability of the region and increases the risk of miscalculation with potentially global impact.
In this respect, we too are disturbed by the scale and speed of current land reclamation activities and the risk that these actions may pose to maritime freedom of navigation and to the stability of the south China Sea.
So we call on all parties to refrain from activities that increase tension, to pursue urgently the settlement of maritime and other disputes peacefully in accordance with international law.
To be transparent about their claims and clarify their legal basis.
And to exercise restraint and behave responsibly, employing dialogue not force or coercion.
We look to all parties to abide by the existing ‘Declaration on Conduct’ and encourage nations to make progress on a binding code of conduct.
To be clear, this is not only the UK’s view, other nations, both regionally and globally, share similar concerns.
So we stand shoulder to shoulder with the US and other allies in upholding the international rules based system.
2. Strong armed forces
Diplomacy matters but, as President Roosevelt once said:
Peace, like war, can succeed only where there is a will to enforce it, and where there is available power to enforce it.
That means we must build and maintain strong, capable armed forces able to deter those who wish us harm, able to sustain and defend the international rules based system, and able to protect our interests and citizens if the shield of deterrence is breached.
In the UK we’re investing in the capability we need, spending more than £160 billion on defence capability over the next 10 years.
On carriers, next generation armoured vehicles, and fifth generation strike fighters.
We’re also ramping up our defence engagement in the Pacific region.
We are expanding our defence attaché network. Our recently established defence sections in Thailand, Vietnam and Burma are now at full operating capacity and we now have a non resident DA to Pyongyang demonstrating the need for dialogue, not rhetoric.
We are increasing our defence training with nearly 400 internal and external security cooperation activities ongoing or planned for the region this year.
Yet capability counts for nothing without the will to act.
Time and again the UK has shown its willingness to keep the peace and preserve stability across the globe.
Whether providing the UN with strategic airlift to support its East Africa mission, sending our ships, helicopters and highly trained medical personnel to Sierra Leone to slow the advance of Ebola.
Above all, sending the strongest of signals to our adversaries and others who challenge the rules based international order, by striking at the dark heart of ISIL in Iraq and by patrolling Baltic skies against Russian provocation.
The UK is the fith biggest funder of UN peacekeeping missions.
We remain engaged right round the world and by restructuring our services, we’ve ensured they will be more agile, more flexible and more capable of responding to crises in the future.
In Asia and the Pacific, speaking more regionally, we have lent a hand in the hunt for MH370 in the Pacific, by providing search assets including HMS Tireless a nuclear powered submarine and HMS Echo a survey ship.
Elsewhere, we helped the victims of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in double quick time through the deployment of RAF aircraft and Royal Navy ships.
And we provided RAF aircraft and aid support in Vanuatu and, most recently, personnel and aid supplies to Nepal.
In addition to our defence attaché network, we also retain more than 800 personnel based throughout the region but particularly in our ‘Garrison and Loan Service’ detachment in Brunei, in a host of appointments in Australia and in support of our commitment to the ‘Five Power Defence Arrangements’.
My third point is that, to preserve the international order, we must strengthen our international partnerships, create new ones and act to keep the peace when occasion demands.
After World War 2, a number of multinational bodies were formed to keep the peace for the good of all.
Chief among them was NATO, the cornerstone of our defence. Sixty-six years later, it is more relevant than ever, especially in the light of recent Russian behavior. But the UK is determined to keep strengthening the alliance.
We were among the first nations to sign up as a framework nation for its Very High Readiness Joint Task Force.
And we continue to press our fellow European allies to do more to invest in defence as the US rightly turns more towards Asia.
Our commitment to and interest in multilateral partnerships also extends to Asia and we are part of the Five Power Defence Arrangements.
But perhaps now it’s time for the region to go a step further and develop its own multilateral structure with a much broader remit. I fully support Ash Carter’s call for shared regional architecture.
And if multilateral agreements are important, so too are bilateral relationships.
They help create a tapestry of capabilities to respond in a more tailored way to different crises.
And the UK is proud of its many close ties.
We support the central role that the US play in preserving peace in this region and across the world.
Our special relationship is as strong as ever and we’ve signed agreements to sharpen our technological edge.
Our closeness with Australia is underlined by our defence treaty and annual AUKMIN talks.
We welcome China’s growing contribution to the global public good, such as its role in peacekeeping and non combatant evacuations.
We’re working with Japan on research, development and production of defence equipment and in a host of other ways as agreed in our 2+2 discussions.
We remain close to South Korea and our contribution to United Nations’ Command and annual exercises such as ULCHI FREEDOM GUARDIAN and KEY RESOLVE are strong reminders of our will to act, along with many other allies, in defence of South Korea in 1953.
Similarly, our contribution to FPDA and will to support Australia, Malaysia, Singapore and New Zealand remains as strong as ever.
Opportunity. Diplomacy. Strong armed forces and partnerships, courage, grit and determination, plus willingness to invest in the long term, are essential to containing regional crises and reinforcing stability.
But let me leave you with this thought.
Like other allies, the UK has found the best way to show you mean business in defence is by doing defence business.
In bilateral relationships.
In regional partnerships.
In international fora.
Not just for ourselves, but for the prosperity and security of us all, and for the stability of the international order, the rules based order, on which we all depend. Stability and a rules based, not merely power based, approach are fundamental to genuine and long term regional prosperity for all the nations involved.