Singapore Ups Commitment to Host US Military Facilities

Singapore continues to double down as recipient and benefactor of the US tilt to Asia, jointly announcing on Dec. 7 – the anniversary of the destruction of the US fleet by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii in 1941 – that it is adding Poseidon P8-A spy planes to an already formidable US presence on the island.

Although US Defense Secretary Ashton Carton and Singapore Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen signed an enhanced defense agreement on Dec. 7, the US has had a significant naval presence in Singapore since it closed its facilities in Subic Bay in the Philippines in 1991. But with growing Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, that presence has grown more. In October, the US Navy conducted a controversial Freedom of Navigation Operation where China has dredged enough soil from the sea floor to create a formidable island that is said capable of hosting an air strip.

In February, the navy completed the posting of four tri-hulled Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) a new class of warship intended – as the name suggests – to operate on the ocean's margins rather in the blue open waters traditionally favored by naval strategists and commanders. The LCS USS Fort Worth in May conducted patrols in international waters near the islets claimed by China in the South China Sea as the People’s Liberation Army-Navy guided-missile frigate Yancheng sailed close behind — but the American ship didn’t come within the 12-mile limit. In October, however, the USS Lassen, a guided missile destroyer, did cross the 12 mile limit, sparking protest and impelling Beijing to summon the US ambassador for a scolding.

Likewise, the Poseidons – heavily modified versions of the Boeing 737-800 – have already gone into action, flying over the Chinese manmade islands to loud protest from the Chinese military. China on Dec. 8 criticized enhanced US defense ties with Singapore over the deployment of the jets.

Singapore has hosted a US Navy logistics unit - the 100-strong COMLOG WESTPAC - at the Changi naval base to provision and maintain passing US warships since the navy’s departure from Subic Bay. In 2013, Singapore insisted that hosting the LCS combat vessels was a temporary arrangement, apparently reflecting concerns over China's growing emphasis on defining and defending maritime territorial claims in the South China Sea.

China grumbles over additions

A stronger U.S. military presence does "not conform to the common and long-term interests among the regional countries," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chuying grumbled at a daily briefing. "So we hope the relevant side does more to enhance mutual trust among regional countries, and thus benefit the regional peace and development," Hua said.

If the ships and planes represent further signs of America’s military tilt to Asia, they also represent a strong commitment by Singapore to continued dominance of the sea lanes of the South China Sea by the US Seventh Fleet. But if the advantage to the US seems clear, any advantage to Singapore appears less so when set against the potential diplomatic cost in terms of the country's relationships with nations often wary about its close ties with Western powers. This applies notably to China, where concerns over US “encirclement” have raised the tempo of nationalist rhetoric - particularly within the powerful military.

But Singapore's foreign policy has long been based on balancing its relationships between regional neighbors and global powers through a mixture of economic and military ties. Multinational investment and the willingness to allow its banks to serve as a repository for often opaquely sourced funds, in particular from Myanmar and Indonesia, has helped ease frictions among large and potentially threatening neighbors. It ameliorates Chinese concerns through massive investment on the mainland and receptiveness to mainland investors as well.

This policy has been backed by the maintenance of its own lavishly equipped military forces, which in defense capability could easily overcome either of its bigger neighbors – Singapore is only 720 sq km – Malaysia and Indonesia, should they get obstreperous.

Despite the fact that they don’t get their wheels up before they are over international waters, those include Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) F-15SG Eagle and F-16C/D Fighting Falcon fighter aircraft, AH-64D Apache attack helicopters, CH-47 Chinook heavy lift helicopters and KC-135R Stratotankers for in-flight refuelling.

RSAF personnel undergo extensive flight and support training in bases across the US, notably in Arizona, Idaho and Texas, and Singapore has also offered consistent if modest support to US-led operations in Afghanistan by providing medical personnel, drone and mortar detecting units and training teams.

Port in a storm

Singapore has no doubt weighed the risks and rewards of hosting the Navy and probably assessed that the presence of warships that are either testbeds or de facto naval avatars - a strategically non-threatening manifestation of US naval power - will not destabilize regional ties or unduly concern Beijing. However, what may prove more contentious is how Singapore extracts itself from the arrangement if ties between China and the US deteriorate further.

According to Singapore's Ministry of Defense, the agreement signed by the two countries on Dec. 7 enhances links in areas like policy and transnational terrorism while laying out new areas of cooperation in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, cyber-defense, biosecurity and public communications.

The pact was signed in conjunction with the 25th anniversary of a 1990 Memorandum of Understanding and the 10th anniversary of the 2005 Strategic Framework Agreement.

Ng is visiting Washington from Dec 6 to 10. Apart from his meeting with the US defense secretary, he was to confer with congressional leaders and high-ranking military officials from the Pentagon. He is also due to deliver a speech at the Washington think tank, the Centre for a New American Security.