Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Singapore's art of the deal in defence diplomacy

Its latest agreement with the Chinese highlights the balancing involved in keeping ties with both China and US on an even keel
By David Boey, Published The Straits Times, 22 Oct 2019

In the latest sign of its efforts to maintain strong friendships with both China and the United States, Singapore announced on Sunday that it had updated a defence deal that allows Chinese warships to continue using its military facilities, just as it did for the US under a separate pact.

As a maritime nation, it is in Singapore's interest that trade routes remain free and open. It is also imperative for Singapore to nurture meaningful ties with maritime forces that sail in regional sea lanes. The two points are not mutually exclusive.

With China and the US jockeying for power, Singapore's offer to sustain China's regional military presence is a move policymakers would have weighed carefully with due regard to American sensitivities, particularly concerns that Singapore may be straying into China's orbit.

The US Navy's regular demonstrations of freedom of navigation operations in disputed South China Sea waters using its warships and patrol planes have in the recent past triggered tense stand-offs with the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy.

So while support for port visits forms a small part of the Sino-Singapore defence deal, it would not be surprising that Singapore's commitment to provide continued support for visiting PLA Navy warships may raise eyebrows about the implications of the agreement.


The enhanced Agreement on Defence Exchanges and Security Cooperation was signed in China on Sunday by Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen and Chinese State Councillor and Minister of National Defence Wei Fenghe. It builds on the January 2008 document that paved the way for the PLA and Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) to cooperate and train together.

If you deconstruct the enhanced deal, you will find that PLA-SAF defence diplomacy efforts account for all but one of six new areas for constructive engagement. Ministerial-level dialogues, bigger bilateral exercises (currently small scale, with 120 soldiers from each army), port visits by warships, academic exchanges between military academies and think-tanks and a hotline represent fresh efforts to strengthen defence diplomacy.

The sixth point, a visiting forces agreement, is mainly procedural (this covers the legal status of troops participating in exercises).

Signed 27 days after Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and US President Donald Trump agreed to extend a 1990 memorandum of understanding (MOU) that allows American military aircraft and naval vessels to use facilities in the city state, the short interval between the two signings is likely to draw comparisons between the two deals and raise questions about Singapore's motives.


Balancing Singapore's relationship with China (the Republic's largest trading partner) and the US (its biggest foreign investor) is more complex than simply brokering a deal with both sides.

Though the specifics are different, the art of the deal with China and the US stems from a common intention by all signatories to enhance regional peace and stability.

Unlike the 1990 MOU, which was intended to give the Americans a place that would partially offset the loss of Subic Naval Base and Clark Air Base in the Philippines, the focus of the Sino-Singapore deal appears to be designed for China's military to sustain constructive engagement in the area of defence diplomacy. As part of the balancing act, Singapore will not commit its US-sourced weapons for war games with the PLA even as it seeks to deepen bilateral defence cooperation with the world's biggest military.

It bears remembering that it took eight years before China agreed to resume sending minister-level representation to the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore this year. Specific mention of the Shangri-La Dialogue and the Beijing Xiangshan Forum underscores the enhanced deal's commitment to defence diplomacy. This means China and international stakeholders can engage in dialogue. The PLA's willingness to step up its outreach as it expands and modernises is also a positive one.


While the image of PLA Navy warships sharing access to Changi Naval Base with US Navy warships might strike some as odd, the support Chinese warships may receive during port calls, such as refuelling and resupply, is more a political gesture.

There will be no Chinese naval base in Singapore. Even without the ability to refuel in Singapore, the PLA Navy has roamed the high seas on its own. Since December 2008, China has sent more than 33 Escort Task Forces to the Gulf of Aden to protect international shipping from pirate attacks. In all these missions, China has both acted as a committed and responsible member of the global commons even as it extends its power projection abroad. The PLA Navy's reach far from home is sustained by its fleet of naval supply ships.

China also opened its first overseas base in Djibouti, in the Horn of Africa, in 2017 to protect its maritime silk road.

At an operational level, the refuelling support Singapore offers provides practical benefits for smaller PLA Navy vessels. With a limited fuel supply, smaller warships cannot venture far from home base without refuelling support because such vessels must have the fuel to reach their area of operations and return to base. The operational radius (the maximum distance from home base and back) is therefore much shorter than the warship's maximum range from points A to B. But as the PLA Navy introduces newer and more capable vessels and older coastal craft are retired, China will have fewer vessels that could benefit from Singapore as a distant refuelling stop, and this highlights why the logistics support appears more of a symbolic political gesture.

Singapore has long welcomed all foreign warships to call at Changi Naval Base. As Singapore's logistical support for port visits means Chinese and American warships drink from the same tap, figuratively speaking, it is possible that Beijing will maximise the symbolism with an unprecedented visit by one of its key naval assets, possibly an aircraft carrier, to show it is on a par with the US Navy.

Next year marks 30 years of Sino-Singapore diplomatic ties and Beijing may well leverage access to Singapore to symbolise how far bilateral ties have grown.

David Boey, a former defence correspondent at The Straits Times, is a member of the Ministry of Defence's Advisory Council on Community Relations in Defence.

Singapore, China ministers sign upgraded defence pact
Deal will see larger-scale military exercises, troop visits and frequent high-level dialogues
By Tan Dawn Wei, China Bureau Chief In Beijing, The Straits Times, 21 Oct 2019

Singapore and China have upgraded a defence pact that will include frequent high-level dialogues and larger-scale military exercises involving all three arms of their militaries - the army, navy and air force.

Troops from the two countries will also visit each other under a new Visiting Forces Agreement, while a mutual logistics support arrangement has been agreed upon.

The new collaboration is a top-up of the Agreement on Defence Exchanges and Security Cooperation signed in 2008. That agreement formalised ongoing defence collaboration such as exchanges of visits and port calls.

Yesterday, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen and his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe signed the enlarged deal in Beijing, ahead of China's annual security conference, Xiangshan Forum, which Dr Ng will address tomorrow.

Besides a regular ministerial-level meeting, the two sides also promised to continue to send their top defence officials to multilateral conferences, such as Singapore's annual Shangri-La Dialogue and China's Xiangshan Forum in Beijing.

There will also be academic exchanges between military academies and think-tanks of both countries, while a bilateral hotline will be set up.

While this year will be Dr Ng's fourth time speaking at the Xiangshan Forum, which is now into its ninth year, China has for much of the past decade sent lower-level officials to the high-profile Shangri-La Dialogue.

But all that changed this year, when General Wei became the first Chinese defence minister to attend the security conference since 2011, amid growing rivalry between the United States and China in the region.

When Singapore was Asean chair last year, it also helped usher in the first joint maritime exercise between the regional bloc and China in October.

Earlier yesterday, Dr Ng had a bilateral meeting with General Wei, during which they discussed institutionalising and scaling up their joint army and navy exercises, Exercise Cooperation and Exercise Maritime Cooperation.

The fourth instalment of Exercise Cooperation between the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) took place in July in Singapore, while the inaugural naval exercise kicked off in 2015.

A statement from Singapore's Defence Ministry said Dr Ng's visit to China "reflects the growing defence and bilateral ties between both countries".

Military affairs expert Collin Koh said Beijing's defence diplomacy outreach has been increasingly active in South-east Asia.

Promoting stronger military ties with China is also in Singapore's interest, as it takes into account China's rising clout and influence and how that is shaping the regional security architecture.

But the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies research fellow also pointed out challenges in this upgraded deal.

One, the SAF and PLA have different organisational cultures, doctrines and equipment, which means it will take time to improve interoperability and expand the scope of joint training.

Two, Singapore needs to manage operational and technological sensitivities given its close defence and security links with the West, especially the US, from whom the SAF buys large amounts of military equipment.

"Fostering closer ties with the PLA should not be misperceived as at the expense of undermining the longstanding trust and cooperation with the US military. So it's a delicate balance to strike," said Dr Koh.

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