Code for unplanned encounters in air wanted by Asean: Ng Eng Hen

Asean wants set of protocols to manage unexpected air encounters in S. China Sea

Asean countries hope to reach an agreement with their partners on a code by October this year to manage unexpected encounters in the air, a move Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said will help manage incidents in the South China Sea.

This code for unplanned encounters will reduce the risk of miscalculation and mishaps, and provide measures for de-escalation should they occur, said Dr Ng.

Speaking to reporters a day after the Asean Defence Ministers' Meeting (ADMM) Retreat, which he chaired, Dr Ng noted that one key item discussed was developing a set of protocols to manage unexpected encounters, even as Asean member states and China begin negotiations on a separate binding code of conduct to manage tensions in the disputed waters.

Four Asean members - Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam - and China have overlapping claims in the South China Sea, where military installations have been built in recent years.

There already exists a Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, which was adopted by ADMM-Plus countries last year, but a similar set of protocols for aircraft is just as important, said Dr Ng.

Asean defence ministers were unanimous in wanting to work towards such a code for such encounters in the air, he said, but added that it would be challenging to get all 18 ADMM-Plus countries to agree on it by the formal ADMM and ADMM-Plus meetings in October.

Asked if the ministers discussed Chinese activity in the South China Sea, where it has built islands and military bases, Dr Ng said they discussed "confidence-building measures", and noted that all claimants carried out such activity in the area to various extents.

He said also that Singapore was not a claimant state and "really does not want to get involved in what belongs to whom, because it is not our place to say".

After their retreat on Tuesday, Asean defence ministers met Chinese Minister of National Defence Chang Wanquan, who is in Singapore for an introductory visit.

The ministers said China is key to stability and progress in the Asia-Pacific region, Dr Ng said.

They also agreed to conduct the first Asean-China maritime exercise by the end of this year.