Singapore’s defence ties: A balancing act

Singaporean prime minister Lee Hsien LoongSingaporean prime minister Lee Hsien Loong. Photo:Ace Kindredzen

Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe’s visit to Singapore last month saw him deliver a highly anticipated speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue and enhance China’s bilateral defence pact with the city-state host.

By Maegan Liew

Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe’s attendance at the 2019 Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD), held in Singapore from May 31 to June 2, marked the first time in eight years that Beijing had been represented by a senior official at the talks.

Bringing together defence ministers and military officials from across the Asia-Pacific, the annual defence forum aims to facilitate exchanges on security challenges and foster interstate relationships.

In a 50-minute plenary session, the Chinese defence minister declared that China stands ready to defend its national interests and “will not be bullied”. The Chinese defence minister’s speech followed acting US Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan’s address, which saw him denounce unnamed ‘actors’ for destabilising the region through the militarisation of a disputed area.

U.S. Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis meets with the Minister of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China General Wei Fenghe at the Pentagon, Washington D.C., Nov 9, 2018. (DoD photo by Air Force Master Sgt. Angelita M. Lawrence)

China capitalised on the summit to articulate its position in the region

In recent years, China’s enthusiasm towards participating in Western-led security dialogues like the SLD had been on the decline. Beijing has sent a string of low-level officials with limited clout. General Wei’s presence at the 2019 SLD marked only the second time that China had sent its defence minister to the forum, with the previous occasion taking place in 2011.  

According to an unnamed Chinese delegate, the decision to send Defence Minister General Wei reflected Beijing’s increased efforts to articulate its position to the international community at a time when relations with Washington are strained.

This year’s SLD offered China a platform to herald its contributions to regional security and communicate its role in Asia. The SLD further presented an opportunity for the power to strengthen the prominence of its role in Asian regional groupings amidst (the real or perceived) decline in US engagement in the region.

In his speech, General Wei referred to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as well as China’s hosting of the Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilizations as examples of Beijing’s encouragement of regional cooperation and development.

He said China has never “invaded another country or taken an inch of land from others”, and stressed Beijing’s harmonious intentions in the region and commitment to safeguarding regional and world stability.

Singapore-China defence ties deepen after bilateral meeting

During his Singapore visit, General Wei also took part in a bilateral meeting with Singapore’s Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen. Following the meeting, both parties announced they would revise the Agreement on Defence Exchanges and Security Cooperation between Singapore and China.

First signed in 2008, the agreement formalised ongoing cooperation between Singapore’s Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), including bilateral visits, knowledge sharing through courses and seminars, and port calls.

As part of efforts to deepen defence ties, the revised defence pact includes new arrangements for services-to-services cooperation, the establishment of frequent high-level dialogues and academic and think-tank exchanges.

The scale of existing bilateral exercises is also set to increase. The two defence ministers reached an agreement for the next Exercise Maritime Cooperation, a bilateral military exercise in which both navies participate. The exercise will take place next year. This will be the second bilateral naval drill between Singapore and China after the countries held a similar drill in 2015.

Few other Southeast Asian countries engage with the PLA Navy on a bilateral basis, especially those (like Singapore) that maintain strong security ties with the US.

Singapore is balancing relations with the two global powers

In the same week, Singapore reaffirmed its “excellent and long-standing” bilateral defence ties with the US. The two countries reached an agreement to renew the 1990 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU).

Signed in 1990 by founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and then-US vice president Dan Quayle, the MOU has been pivotal in developing US-Singaporean ties, facilitating US access to Singapore’s air and naval bases and anchoring a US regional presence in ASEAN for almost 30 years.

Prospective bilateral initiatives, such as increased training detachments for the Republic of Singapore Air Force at a suitable US military base, were also discussed at the meeting. 

Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis meets with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Istana in Shangri-La, Singapore, June 1, 2018. The two met to discuss the partnership between the U.S. and Singapore during the 2018 Shangri-La Dialogue. (DoD Photo by Tech Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.)

Singapore is working to improve regional stability

In his keynote speech at the SLD, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong called on small states to work together to exercise their agency to “stem the growing hostility and instability” between the US and China.

Describing the US-China relationship as “the most important in the world today”, the Singaporean Prime Minister concluded that a face-off between the two powers is not a “strategic inevitability”. Instead, he argued, the fundamental problem between the two sides boils down to a mutual lack of strategic trust.

This dearth of strategic trust is exactly what Singapore is looking to avoid. In stepping up military engagement and exchanges with both China and the US at a time when the two sides are embroiled in disputes, the island nation is attempting to foster trust and stability in the region through diplomacy.

Building strong and friendly bilateral ties through cooperation and interaction between defence establishments and armed forces around the world allows the city-state to cultivate a diverse network of defence relationships.

Singapore straddles the great powers on the global stage

Singapore’s move to deepen military ties with both powers is a continuance of the city state’s traditional policy of maintaining friendly relations with all powers.

Picking the middle path has served Singapore’s national interests well in the past. Singapore’s neutral and principled stance has enabled the island nation to punch above its weight on the international stage. Last year, the city-state’s ability to “provide neutrality” saw it play host to the historic meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Singapore’s neutrality has also established its status as an arbitration hub.

As a small country with regional clout, Singapore has a responsibility to ensure a balance of power in the region. Current trends in China-US ties are moving in an unsettling direction. The continued escalation of tensions may force small states like Singapore to choose a side. To preserve goodwill on the international stage amidst the shifting global power balance, it will be in the interest of small states to work towards greater regional integration and constructive cooperation. Building strategic trust and confidence through enhanced military ties is one way to go about it.  

About the Author

Maegan Liew
Maegan studies Political Science at the National University of Singapore. She enjoys discussing international relations and seeks to better understand the world through writing.