Asean To Work Towards Code For Unplanned Encounters In The Air

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Asean countries hope to reach agreement with their partners on a code to manage unexpected encounters in the air by October this year, 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 (COC) 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.

He said: "For military aircraft, what happens if despite all the negotiations, two planes from opposite sides, or two or more sides, suddenly meet each other in midair, or at sea - what do you do? You make a miscalculation, you can have a security incident of enormous impact."

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.

"If we do, I think that will build confidence, that even as we negotiate the code of conduct, that there are measures in place which will reduce the risk of any mishaps or miscalculation," he said.

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 doesn't want to get involved in what belongs to whom, because it is not our place to say", adding that there are platforms and institutions that can make a deterministic outcome.

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 was key to stability and progress in the Asia-Pacific region, Dr Ng said.

"There was a clear recognition that China is not only needed, it is also indispensable and a key partner, so this engagement of China would have to be stepped up," he added.

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

"Both China and Asean gave their full support for this, so we will work out the details," said Dr Ng.

At their retreat, Asean defence ministers also discussed efforts to counter terrorism and supported a framework proposed by Singapore - manage efforts to build resilience, respond to the threat and recover from an attack. They also discussed building a network of experts to help in responding to a possible nuclear attack or a dirty bomb set off by terrorists.

- Straits Times