Over the last year and a half, it’s been evident that Washington’s defence and security relations with Singapore are a lynchpin of the Southeast Asian component of the US rebalance to the Asia-Pacific. But Singapore’s interest in encouraging the United States to remain closely involved in Asia-Pacific security predates the contemporary US rebalance to the region by several decades. Even in the late 1960s, it was clear to Singapore’s leaders that the city-state should do its best to prevent the regional dominance of any power.
Since then, encouraging and—increasingly—facilitating a continuing strong US regional security role have been key to Singapore’s foreign and defence policies. So it was unsurprising that it should help lend substance to the rebalance by providing what is, in all but name, a base for US Navy Littoral Combat Ships (LCS), the first of which (USS Freedom) arrived at Changi Naval Base this April. Current plans call for four such ships to be forward-deployed in Singapore by 2017.
The LCS deployments are the latest addition to wide-ranging bilateral security and defence relations that have been growing incrementally over the last four decades. These links were most recently codified under the confidential Strategic Framework Agreement for a Closer Cooperation Partnership in Defence and Security, signed by Singapore’s then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and President George W. Bush in July 2005.
Other important aspects of the relationship include the long-term stationing of Singapore air force operational training units in the US, and the city-state’s role as a hub for bilateral exercises between the US Navy’s Seventh Fleet and Southeast Asian partners, known as the CARAT (Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training) series. Between May 2007 and June this year, Singapore also deployed military units to Afghanistan as part of the US-led coalition, and has sent naval vessels to the Gulf of Aden on counter-piracy duties in close coordination with the US.
But there’s always been an element of reserve on Singapore’s part regarding its security links with the US. A decade ago, Singapore reportedly turned down the opportunity to become a major non-NATO ally of the US, preferring the looser if still substantial partnership embodied in the 2005 Strategic Framework Agreement.
Clear-cut alignment with the US could not only imperil Singapore’s extremely important and still expanding links—especially in the economic sphere—with China, but also place Singapore in a difficult and potentially dangerous predicament in the event of serious tensions or conflict between China and the US. Becoming a US ally would also have seriously risked complicating relations with Singapore’s immediate neighbours, Indonesia and Malaysia, where Islamism and its near-obligatory accompaniment, anti-Americanism, as well as strongly-held notions of national and regional self-reliance in security, are important elements of political discourse.
As the LCS deployments clearly illustrate, in substantive terms Singapore undoubtedly supports the current US rebalance. When Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, spoke in Washington in early April, he remarked that ‘US forces are the most frequent foreign visitors to our military facilities, and we look forward to welcoming your first Littoral Combat Ship shortly’. In early June, after Lee Hsien Loong, and Minister for Defence Ng Eng Hen each met US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel on the sidelines of the most recent IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, a news release from the Pentagon said Prime Minister Lee and Defence Minister Ng
…welcomed the US rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region and noted the importance of robust US engagement in the region. They also reaffirmed the importance of the United States forward deploying on a rotational basis its first Littoral Combat Ships to Singapore…
But Singapore itself was less than willing to shout from the rooftops that it supports the rebalance: the corresponding press release from Singapore’s defence ministry on its minister’s meeting with Hagel said merely that they
…reaffirmed the excellent and longstanding defence relationship between Singapore and the US, and their commitment to further strengthen bilateral defence cooperation. They also discussed a wide range of regional security and defence issues.
There was no mention of either the rebalance or the LCS deployment. Similarly, in his plenary address at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Secretary Hagel took the opportunity to elaborate the substance and significance of the rebalance; whereas in his own plenary speech on ‘Advancing defence cooperation in the Asia-Pacific’ Minister Ng spoke in some detail about the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus, but didn’t mention the rebalance and Singapore’s ever-closer defence cooperation with the US.
There are reasons for thinking that these rhetorical nuances aren’t simply presentational variations, but reflect something more profound. Like most other Southeast Asian states, amid the contemporary geopolitical flux that characterises the Asia-Pacific as China rises, the US rebalances and the role of other major powers remains uncertain, Singapore is unwilling to align itself with the United States wholeheartedly and needs to keep its strategic options open. Notwithstanding Singapore’s long-term efforts to encourage continued American engagement in Southeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific, the formal status of relations between Singapore and the US accurately represents the reality: they are security partners, not allies.
Tim Huxley is the executive director of The International Institute for Strategic Studies (Asia). Image courtesy of Flickr user PACOM.