Australia–Singapore comprehensive strategic partnership lives up to its billing
17 Oct 2022|

In 2016, I wrote a report on Australia’s defence and security partnership with Singapore, a few months after bilateral ties were upgraded to a comprehensive strategic partnership. I concluded then that the ‘lion and kangaroo’ were natural partners because of an unusual commonality in outlook and capability that each found hard to replicate elsewhere as fellow odd ones out in their immediate region. In the defence domain, I noted, Singapore and Australia had further potential to augment each other’s strategic depth, by enhancing reciprocal access and tightening what was already a close military relationship.

Back then, it’s fair to say, Singapore was regarded as a niche partnership: too small to exert sufficient pull across Southeast Asia, while easily eclipsed by Canberra’s preoccupation with Indonesia, ASEAN’s first among equals. Australian and Singaporean officials told a more confident story about the partnership’s potential, but the prevailing impression in the public debate was of a friendly but finite relationship.

Seven years on, it’s much harder to question Singapore’s status as a major regional partner for Australia and vice versa, judged against the mutual depth and breadth to the relationship, both official and unofficial. Yet it’s still not appreciated widely enough that Singapore is one of Australia’s most enduring load-bearing bilateral partners. Singapore is a city-state but functions like a large country for Australia, in several ways.

In people-to-people terms, the Singaporean community in Australia is more than 72,000 strong. More than 130,000 Singaporeans have graduated from Australian universities. Singaporeans are the sixth-largest nationality among tourist arrivals to Australia, trailing only New Zealand and India in August. Not bad for a country with a total population under 6 million, of whom only 3.6 million are Singaporean citizens.

In the economic arena, Singapore has risen to become Australia’s fifth-largest trading partner, as well as its largest trade and investment partner in Southeast Asia. It is Australia’s seventh-largest investor overall. Investment flows from Singapore have grown rapidly since the comprehensive strategic partnership was signed, aided by a number of sectoral initiatives, including a digital economy agreement that entered into force in December 2020. A green economy agreement that, according to Foreign Minister Penny Wong, ‘will drive trade, economic and environment cooperation as we decarbonise our economies’ is expected to be finalised this year. Australia is a major food supplier to Singapore. The significance of this for Singapore was brought home during the pandemic when supplies from other markets were disrupted. Australia is a growing energy provider too. The two countries are collaborating on low-emission fuels, with a focus on the maritime sector. There are ambitious private-sector plans to lay a 4,200-kilometre submarine cable to distribute solar electricity generated in northern Australia directly to Singapore. The growth of bilateral trade and investment thus masks a deeper interdependence in economic security. For its most important imported commodities, Singapore’s supply chains lead increasingly to Australia. Australia is correspondingly reliant on Singapore for the import of refined petroleum products.

In defence, Singapore has for decades provided access to the Australian Defence Force via the undergirding framework of the Five Power Defence Arrangements, which Singapore interprets relatively flexibly—sometimes more flexibly than Malaysia. Singapore hosts FPDA logistics facilities at Sembawang and offers access to its naval base at Changi, helping to sustain the Australian navy’s forward presence in the northeast Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. Australian maritime surveillance aircraft fly regularly from Paya Lebar air base. Singapore’s sub-regionally superior military capabilities make the Singapore Armed Forces Australia’s most sophisticated exercise partner in Southeast Asia, and contribute generally to deterrence. Australia offers Singapore the strategic commodity it lacks most: space. Singapore’s military training program in Australia has approximately doubled under the comprehensive strategic partnership.

Expanded training areas in northern Queensland, funded at Singapore’s expense, are capable of hosting 14,000 SAF personnel and have the capacity for two large, unilateral combined-arms exercises annually. A treaty on military training and development, ratified by Australia’s parliament in December 2020, guarantees these arrangements for 25 years. The SAF and ADF train jointly in both countries, as well as multilaterally through the FDPA and ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus framework. Singapore’s military presence in Australia, as a set of training arrangements rather than a basing agreement, has conspicuously avoided domestic controversy. Indeed, the SAF has built goodwill in Australia by assisting the ADF’s disaster-relief efforts against bushfires and floods.

Bilateral security cooperation extends to intelligence exchanges, joint cybersecurity exercises, counterterrorism, as well as collaboration on artificial intelligence, personal data protection and other digital areas. The relationship is obviously not without its strains and complications, some of which arise because of the closeness of ties. Optus, which recently suffered a massive cyberattack and data breach affecting 10 million Australians, is owned by Singtel, for example. However, the close inter-governmental and personal connections within the comprehensive strategic partnership encourage policy solutions and prevent bilateral differences from becoming politicised.

Australia and Singapore do not always see eye to eye on China, and Singapore has sometimes publicly counselled Canberra to adopt a more conciliatory approach towards Beijing. But there is value to such differences in perceptions and Canberra’s pioneering policy responses to countering foreign interference have offered pointers for Singapore, which finds itself confronted by similar challenges. Approaching Australia’s security and defence relationship with Singapore narrowly through a China lens can be a quick way to discover its limits. Singapore’s core threat perceptions tend to be more local in nature. Yet Australia and Singapore share a common commitment to maintaining rule of law, a favourable balance of power and freedom of navigation. Singapore’s pragmatic acceptance of AUKUS and vocal stance against Russian aggression in Ukraine have aligned with Canberra’s positions.

A ‘comprehensive strategic’ designation can all too easily set up a bilateral relationship for disappointment. The Australia–Singapore partnership, unusually, continues to live up to its billing and delivers reciprocal benefits beyond the sum of its parts.