A file photo shows visitors queuing to have a closer look at a static display of a Lockheed Martin F-35 at the Singapore Airshow in 2016. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Singapore’s latest decision to shell out billions for new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft from Lockheed Martin was not aimed at China, claimed the city state’s Defense Ministry, and Chinese papers also moved in concert to quash speculation in the US media linking Singapore’s purchase of advanced fighters to the People’s Liberation Army’s increasing pull in the region.

After Singaporean Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen announced that the Lion City would procure up to 12 F-35s, with a firm order of four initially, CNN quickly commented that the purchase could “cause trepidation from China.”

The CNN report said Singapore’s decision was indicative of growing concerns within Asia regarding China’s “regional ambitions,” and quoted analysts as saying that China should see the plan as evidence that there remains strong demand in the Asia-Pacific region for a US presence.

If the deal materializes, Singapore will become the fourth US ally in the Asia-Pacific region to own the F-35, joining Australia, Japan and South Korea.

Chinese papers were quick to hit back, slamming the US media’s attempt to use an individual arms sales deal to highlight the Chinese military’s “excesses” in Southeast Asia.

The Global Times also cited The Straits Times as saying that Singapore had also weighed buying China’s J-20 – the PLA’s ace fifth-generation fighter poised to give the F-35 a good run for its money – when the nation looked to replace its aging F-16 fleet.

Singapore has been importing advanced US fighters for decades and the latest F-35 plan is just a continuation of its longstanding “small, prudent but advanced” national defense strategy, the Chinese paper said.

Singapore’s Defense Ministry also said the small batch of F-35s would only be for an evaluation of its capabilities and suitability before any decision on buying more F-35s to replace its F-16 fleet could be made.

However, Chinese experts have also warned that the unified deployment of the F-35 by US allies benefits US operations in the Asia-Pacific region and is detrimental to the PLA’s air defense in the South China Sea.

The F-35 is constantly linked with the US military’s information network while airborne, enabling a US ally, even if it is not involved in a military operation, to share information with the US.

The price of the F-35 – dubbed the world’s most advanced fighter jet – ranges from US$90 million to $115 million a pop. Singapore sees an “opportune time” to put in a request for the F-35 as its price has been falling steadily on the strength of healthy orders from the US and 10 other countries.

It was revealed that US President Donald Trump had written to Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong welcoming the purchase.

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