While Julia Gillard was preparing for her high-profile visit to China, less noticed by the Australian media was a visit to the United States from 1 to 4 April by Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Lee took a senior delegation of ministers and officials and was afforded excellent access: a meeting with President Obama, and calls with the Secretaries of State, Defense and Treasury among others. As Obama put it in his remarks to the media during Lee’s call, the US has an ‘extraordinary relationship’ with Singapore: ‘We have extremely close military cooperation. And I want to thank Singapore for all the facilities that they provide that allow us to maintain our effective Pacific presence.’
That extraordinary relationship is getting even closer as a result of two major defence policy decisions. By the end of the month the first US Navy Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), the USS Freedom will take up station in Singapore for an eight month ‘rotational deployment.’ This will be the first of four LCSs to operate out of Singapore. According to the Naval-technology.com, the vessel is designed to: ‘satisfy the urgent requirement for shallow draft vessels to operate in the littoral (coastal waters) to counter growing potential ‘asymmetric’ threats of coastal mines, quiet diesel submarines and the potential to carry explosives and terrorists on small, fast, armed boats.’
Prime Minister Lee welcomed the imminent initial deployment and, in a speech to the US Chamber of Commerce, set out Singapore’s thinking about the state of maritime security in Asia:
A difficult regional issue is the territorial and maritime disputes in Asia, between China and Japan (the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands), and between China and several ASEAN members (in the South China Sea). We in ASEAN have urged restraint by all parties, and have encouraged claimant states to resolve their disputes peacefully and in accordance with international law, including UNCLOS. We should seek to prevent any miscalculation or mishap which will set the region back for many years. This is also in the US’s interests because though the US is not party to these disputes, it nevertheless shares a fundamental interest in freedom of navigation and maintaining regional peace and stability.
This, inevitably, is the operating environment for the LCS.
Lee’s speech makes interesting reading: a characteristic mix of well-informed strategic assessment and careful hedging. On America’s role in Asia there is none of the wishful or fearful Australian agonising about US decline. Lee says: ‘The US, as the incumbent superpower … will remain dominant for decades to come, [it] naturally has interests to protect.’ It’s clear that Singapore is prepared to go a long way to help the US protect those interests even as it encourages Washington and Beijing to build a closer understanding.
The second major defence development appears to be the imminent announcement of Singapore’s decision to buy the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. According to a Reuters and wider report in mid-March Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen told Parliament that the air force ‘has identified the F-35 as a suitable aircraft to further modernise our fighter fleet. … Our F-5s are nearing the end of their operational life and our F-16s are at their mid-way mark. We are now in the final stages of evaluating the F-35.’
In a typically Washington moment, Reuters reported ‘two U.S. government officials who were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter’ said they expected Singapore to submit a letter of request for potentially ‘several dozen of the stealthy warplanes.’ This reporting reflects a growing sense that such an announcement will happen soon. It would be surprising if the issue had not been discussed by Prime Minister Lee in Washington and in this connection it is notable Lee said in his speech that US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel will visit Singapore for the Shangri-La Dialogue at the end of May.
A firm Singaporean commitment to acquire the stealthy fifth generation F-35 will create quite a stir in South-east Asia and beyond. Malaysia is expected to decide on a replacement for their MiG-29s after a June election. The F-35 is not in the mix, but the F-18E/F, Eurofighter Typhoon, Dassault Rafale, and Saab Gripen NG are being evaluated. Fraternal ASEAN neighbours though they are, no two countries watch each other’s defence acquisitions more closely than Singapore and Malaysia.
In Australia, media reporting continues to speculate that the government will announce an acquisition of up to 24 additional Super Hornets around the time of the release of the 2013 white paper. On February 27 this year the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency advised Congress of Australia’s interest (PDF) in a ‘possible’ purchase—including twelve aircraft equipped with ‘Growler’ electronic warfare technology. Such an acquisition, should it take place, will have to contend with the implications of Singapore’s likely move. Will Australia really consign itself to operating the second-best fighter aircraft in the region? Not a trivial question and not a trivial strategic outcome.
Peter Jennings is executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Image courtesy of Flickr user U.S. Air Force.
Disclaimer: Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor on the F-35 program, is a corporate sponsor of ASPI.