PM Lee visiting Australia in May to strengthen defence and trade ties

(From far left) Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, Australian Defence Minister Marise Payne, Australian Trade Minister Steven Ciobo, Singapore Trade and Industry Minister Lim Hng Kiang, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Singapore Foreign
(From far left) Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, Australian Defence Minister Marise Payne, Australian Trade Minister Steven Ciobo, Singapore Trade and Industry Minister Lim Hng Kiang, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and Australian special envoy for trade Andrew Robb at Sydney Harbour yesterday.PHOTO: REUTERS

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is set to visit Australia in late May for talks that will seek to forge a series of new agreements between Singapore and Australia, including a deal to enhance defence cooperation.

The upcoming visit was announced in Sydney yesterday following meetings between the two countries' foreign, trade and defence ministers.

The meetings included discussion of the need for freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, as well as efforts to find new ways for Singaporean and Australian students to study and undertake internships in each other's countries.

Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said the two countries' prime ministers would seek to bolster defence and trade ties during Mr Lee's visit.

When asked about the specifics of the potential defence agreement, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen flagged efforts to increase training opportunities for Singapore troops.

Currently, the Singapore Armed Forces sends thousands of army and air force personnel to Queensland each year - it was more than 4,000 last year - for an annual training exercise, and the forces use other training sites across Australia.

"We are looking at deepening and broadening the already excellent relationship, whether it is personnel exchanges, more military-to-military ties, science and technology components, as well as - because Singapore is a very small place - more training opportunities in Australia," said Dr Ng.

"They have provided very good opportunities and we are very thankful. We are still in discussion but I would say that if it comes to pass, it would certainly strengthen our defence-to-defence ties."

The ninth biennial meeting of the Singapore-Australia Joint Ministerial Committee (SAJMC) was held at Kirribilli House, the Sydney residence of Australia's prime minister, yesterday.

Dr Balakrishnan said the two nations would look to upgrade their free trade agreement and examine further cooperation on innovation and research and development.

Singapore is Australia's fifth-biggest trading partner and a major source of foreign investment in Australia, he said, but "quite frankly, these numbers should grow".

"We will be looking for opportunities for start-ups in both Australia and Singapore, the leverage of each other's markets and presence, so that literally you can plug in and play into our systems," he said.

"(Innovation) will present many opportunities for young Australians and Singaporeans."

A joint communique issued after the ministerial meetings welcomed the "steady progress" of the 10-year road map of the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership signed by the two countries last June.

It said the ministers were pursuing efforts to deepen economic ties, including a planned review of the free trade agreement.

Other mooted areas of cooperation include promoting tourism, expanding investment in northern Australia and enhancing joint efforts on counter-terrorism and cyber security.

The SAJMC communique also called for efforts to advance regional cooperation and urged "all parties concerned to resolve disputes in the South China Sea peacefully".

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said the two countries were both strongly committed to "unimpeded trade" in the South China Sea. "Both Australia and Singapore commit to the right of states to conduct freedom of navigation and overflights in accordance with international law," she said.

Dr Balakrishnan said: "The key point is to have a peaceful and stable regional architecture so that all these trade, people and goods can flow through unimpeded."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 19, 2016, with the headline 'PM visiting Australia in May to strengthen defence and trade ties'. Print Edition | Subscribe