US military forces aboard Amphibious Assault Vehicles (AAV) manoeuvre on South China Sea near the shore during the annual Philippines-US amphibious landing exercise (PHIBLEX) in San Antonio, Zambales province, Philippines October 7, 2016. Photo: REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco
US military forces aboard Amphibious Assault Vehicles (AAV) manoeuvre on South China Sea near the shore during the annual Philippines-US amphibious landing exercise (PHIBLEX) in San Antonio, Zambales province, Philippines October 7, 2016. Photo: REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco

Like the Mediterranean city-state of Ragusa (now known as Dubrovnik in Croatia) in the sixteenth century which had to divide its allegiance between two warring parties – the Ottoman Empire and the Christian powers of Spain, Venice and the Papal States – in a balancing act for survival, Singapore has to now walk a slippery tightrope to emerge unscathed from the current Sino-American strategic confrontation in the South China Sea.

Subject to the constraints of geography, Singapore has compensated for the lack of strategic territorial depth by elaborating a sophisticated diplomacy. However, things are changing fast in Southeast Asia, and now the former British colony has to face China’s accusation of giving up balancing while playing off the Asian giant against the United States for its own goals.

Chinese nationalists on the offensive

Since Deng Xiaoping became the Chinese paramount leader in 1978, a special relationship has developed between the city-state and Beijing. It has been fueled by common interest in economic growth and cultural affinity (the majority of Singaporeans are indeed ethnic Chinese).

Nevertheless, in the wake of the recent Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit, held in Venezuela in mid-September, China’s nationalistic establishment started to blast Singapore – a NAM member, unlike Beijing – for its alleged attempt to include in the grouping’s strategic guidelines a reference to the July 12 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on South China Sea territorial disputes; and though the Singaporean government has repeatedly denied the fact, some hard-line Chinese media and pundits have continued to lashed out at the tiny Asian commercial powerhouse.

The arbitral decision dismissed Chinese demands over huge portions of the contested waters, which are also claimed by a number of Beijing’s neighbors, with one of them – the Philippines – filing the case before the arbitration court in 2013. As China rejects the ruling, Singapore backs it in principle. The city-state is not a claimant in the South China Sea dispute, but in Washington’s footsteps it pushes for freedom of navigation (and overflight) to be safeguarded along Asia’s major shipping route.

Military cooperation with the US on the rise

Apart from its participation in the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership on free trade, Singapore is evidently stepping up its military relations with Washington, seen as a counterbalance to China’s growing assertiveness in the region. Singapore and the US sealed a joint enhanced defense cooperation agreement (DCA) in December 2015, on the heels of a 1990 memorandum of understanding and the 2005 Strategic Framework Agreement. As part of the new arrangement, they agreed on the periodic deployment of P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft to Singapore to facilitate US intelligence-gathering in the region.

Through its Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen, Singapore voiced support for the Pentagon’s proposal to hold maritime drills in 2017 to improve information sharing capabilities among the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The plan was formulated by US Defense Secretary Ash Carter during a meeting of Southeast Asian and US defense ministers in Hawaii on September 30, and falls within the third phase of US President Barack Obama’s rebalance/pivot to Asia-Pacific.

During the same event, Ng underlined that the real risk in the South China Sea’s dynamics was a clash involving non-military vessels; a veiled attack to China’s massive use of heavily armed coast guard ships in the disputed area. In this sense, Singapore looks favorably on Washington’s drive to strengthen its coast guard’s commitment to the region, as the city-state’s littoral force can station a fleet of Shark-class patrol boats, acquired by the Dutch naval shipbuilder Damen Schelde in 2009.

Furthermore, on the maritime front, Singapore is hosting US naval vessels on a rotational basis and Washington’s navy projects to deploy four littoral combat ships at the city’s Changi Naval Base by 2018.

A robust military force

The US is also Singapore’s most important arms provider. A tough military actor in the region, the city-state is the sixth-largest defense spender in Western Pacific, behind China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and Taiwan, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

In December 2015, Singapore concluded with Lockheed Martin a contract to upgrade its 60 plane F-16 fleet, whose completion is expected by 2023. It is also mulling to buy the F-35 joint strike fighter, though the purchase of this US fifth-generation jet is not planned until 2030.

In another respect, which fits into Singapore’s potential contribution to US operations in the South China Sea, the Singaporean navy will replace its two older Challenger-class submarines with two Type 218SG submarines, which are being constructed by the German Company TKMS at a cost of US$2.2 billion.

Lee Kwan Yew’s strategic teaching

As a little fish in a big pond, it is likely that the tiny and vulnerable Asian state will keep navigating a thin line between the US and China. Epitomizing the city-state’s strategy is Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s address to the Australian Parliament on October 12, when he highlighted Washington’s contribution to stability and prosperity in Asia for the past 40 years and welcomed more cooperation in future between his country and Beijing at once.

Thus, for the time being, Singapore will stick to the geopolitical mantra of its founding father, Lee Kwan Yew – China must be balanced and only the US can do it.

The Ragusean Republic outlived Western-Ottoman secular confrontations and only ceased to exist at the time of Napoleonic wars in early 1800s. In the same way, if Singapore will play well its balancing game, it could outlast the US-China bipolar antagonism in East Asia.

Emanuele Scimia

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He has written for Asia Times since 2011. His articles have also appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review and The Jerusalem Post, among others.

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