CONOR FOWLER. Singapore and China Move to Enhance Defence Relations (Future Directions)

On 29 May, Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe met with his Singaporean counterpart, Ng Eng Hen, and announced the revision of the Agreement on Defence Exchanges and Security Co-operation (ADESC), which was first signed in 2008. The revision is designed to deepen military ties between the two countries. The two ministers met in Singapore ahead of the upcoming Shangri-La Dialogue defence summit. It will be the first time since 2011 that such a high-ranking Chinese government official has attended the annual event. There are several implications for the region arising from this agreement, as well as for other interested parties, such as the United States and Australia. While those implications may not be great, it is important that they be considered.

On the surface, the motivations of both China and Singapore in enhancing the defence agreement appear relatively straightforward. The proposed changes to be introduced include the establishment of frequent high-level dialogues, academic and think-tank exchanges, and new arrangements for services-to-services co-operation.

Singaporean Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen says that the agreements ‘reflect bilateral confidence in each other’ and that the two countries have ‘shared perspectives for a stable and inclusive region’. Those sentiments are consistent with Singapore’s traditional foreign policy position of not actively choosing sides. Giving a Chinese perspective, Zhang Junshe, an analyst from the People’s Liberation Army Naval Military Studies Research Institute, has said that the enhanced relationship will allow Singapore to play an important role in improving relations between China and other ASEAN members. Dr Ng was pleased that Minister Wei attended the security summit and noted that Wei’s presence at the Shangri-La Dialogue demonstrated that China is ‘willing to engage with the region and the world.’

China is currently in the midst of a trade war with the United States and the pressure that China is facing from that has led it to reach out to its regional neighbours, including Singapore. The outreach can be seen as a diplomatic process that seeks to counter suspicion about its intentions in the region; suspicions that many, including the US, find troubling. The US will continue to be Singapore’s primary security partner. Any view that the enhanced defence agreement signals a move away from the US in favour of expanded co-operation with China is premature, not least because such co-operation is entirely consistent with the overall focus of Singaporean foreign policy. No drastic shift in that policy is evident.

Singaporean Deputy Prime Minister, Heng Swee Keat, has said that Singapore is prepared for the negative consequences that may arise from a protracted trade war between China and the US, but Foreign Minister Ng does not believe that Singapore will be forced to choose between the two. Ng says that neither China nor the US would expect it to.

The proposed enhancement may be watched with some interest in Australia, which, since 2015, has enjoyed a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with Singapore. The partnership is aimed at bringing new levels of co-operation and exchanges in defence, the economy, foreign affairs, arts and culture. To an extent, the strategic circumstances of Australia and Singapore are very similar, in that both have China as their most prominent trading partner and the US as their primary security guarantor. It is possible, however, that a continued conflict between the US and China could eventually cause complications for both Australia and Singapore. Positively, the relationship between Singapore and Australia is very healthy and, so far, there would seem to be little reason for any concern at the prospect of the enhanced defence relationship between Singapore and China.

Overall, while the proposed enhancements represent a positive step for Singapore and China, their effects may not be very significant. Singaporean analyst Dr Collin Koh Swee Lean, believes that the ‘devil will be in the detail’ of the agreement. He said that it remains to be seen whether any significant changes will result, or if it will be merely symbolic.

The proposals announced to date are not drastic and are consistent with the overall Singaporean foreign policy objective of pursuing beneficial relationships with all states. While Dr Koh believes, for instance, that Beijing will try to paint the announcement as a ‘political victory of sorts’, it is hard to see who was defeated.  While the US and Australia may be wary of any enhanced military co-operation that substantially benefits China, these particular changes – at least as they now stand – do not appear to fall into that category.

This article was published by Future Directions on the 5th of June 2019. 

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