The lion and the kangaroo

The upgrade of Singapore-Australia ties is a quid pro quo, with Singapore - gateway to South-east Asia - offering Australia economic depth while the Republic gains from strategic and defence cooperation

This week, the Lowy Institute published The Lion And The Kangaroo: Australia's Strategic Partnership With Singapore, my analysis of the upgrade to bilateral relations launched last June by Prime Ministers Lee Hsien Loong and Tony Abbott.

The lion's share of the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) is now complete, with a "massive upgrade" to defence ties announced in early May by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Mr Abbott's successor. It remains for Mr Lee to apply an official seal of approval to the CSP when he goes to Canberra. His planned visit in May has had to be postponed due to the Australian general election in early July. Yet the fast-tracked roll-out of the CSP, as Mr Turnbull's last act of policy just ahead of the election campaign, is evidence of the importance this upgrade in bilateral relations has for both governments, whose officials have negotiated quickly and quietly these past 10 months.

When Mr Lee does visit, it would be a nice touch if he travelled on board the first scheduled international (Singapore Airlines) flight into Canberra, a tangible connectivity benefit of the CSP that will also symbolically break the provincial mould of Australia's capital into the bargain. Not even New Zealand, the country most Australians consider as closest has been able to better that feat.

Achieving a comparable level of intimacy to Australia and New Zealand is one of the stated ambitions of the CSP. That may be a stretch, at the social and cultural level. But Canberra's public willingness to place the city-state on a par to its trans-Tasman sibling is itself significant, given the disparity in size and location between Singapore and Australia, and their more obvious political and cultural differences.

In office, Mr Abbott described Australia and Singapore as "natural partners" that could hardly be more complementary. If a strategic complementarity exists between two countries at such variance, it is more likely to be cultivated than obviously natural. At the same time, the association between these two non-allies and non-neighbours has been too persistent, too mutually beneficial, to be coincidence.

A joint Singapore and Australia armed forces exercise in Australia in 2014. The two armed forces have exercised together for decades, breeding familiarity and transparency across doctrines and operational concepts. Under the Comprehensive Strategic P
A joint Singapore and Australia armed forces exercise in Australia in 2014. The two armed forces have exercised together for decades, breeding familiarity and transparency across doctrines and operational concepts. Under the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership's defence component, the number of SAF personnel undergoing training in Australia will jump from around 6,000 to 14,000. ST FILE PHOTO

Shared interests have compelled the two countries to work closely together over decades. The depth it provides is a well-worn two-way street: Our strategic paths have converged over time.

COMPATIBLE ORBITS

Singapore and Australia move in compatible orbits; the two countries' national capabilities and outlooks are largely complementary, from economics to security, where they share overlapping concerns from Islamist terrorism and cyber vulnerability to managing great power competition in Asia.

Singapore is a natural partner for Australia because of commonalities in outlook and capability that are unmatched elsewhere in the region... Capabilities aside, the most important attributes to this partnership are non-material: a shared mindset, a common outlook and a willingness to commit for the long term.

It is also important to realise that the CSP is not an artificial, top-down arrangement. There is a genuine depth to relations beyond the inter-governmental relationship, anchoring and stabilising the partnership in ways that both Singapore and Australia have struggled in particular to achieve with their larger neighbour, Indonesia.

Already, 50,000 Singaporeans live in Australia, and 20,000 Australians reside in Singapore. Those numbers are likely to grow under the CSP, aided by the introduction of long-term visas, boosted educational links and more service-sector openings as part of the expanded Singapore-Australia Free Trade Agreement.

"Strategic" is an over-used word these days, a label sometimes conveniently applied to an existing bilateral relationship to make it sound more important. But it is justified when the upgrade to the relationship adds genuine depth on both sides.

The upgrade to bilateral relations, therefore, runs much broader than defence, to include foreign policy, trade and investment, and people-to-people links.

The CSP itself could be thought of as a quid pro quo whereby Canberra is seeking to enhance its economic access into South-east Asia via Singapore in "return" for granting the latter expanded access to military training areas in Australia, due to Singapore's shortage of space at home.

Australia's defence relationship with, and strategic interest in, Singapore is itself long-standing and deep. Australia played a role in building the capacity of Singapore's armed forces, in the difficult years after independence. Both countries have been members of the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) since 1971, together with Malaysia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. Although the FPDA has a lower profile compared with the US alliance, Australia's continuing participation signifies its role as a "quasi-guarantor" for Singapore and Malaysia.

Hence, the regular participation of Australian Defence Force (ADF) vessels, aircraft and personnel in FPDA defence exercises, and Canberra's continuing support of an integrated air defence system for the Peninsula.

Australia's 2016 Defence White Paper identifies Singapore as "Australia's most advanced defence partner" in South-east Asia. The two armed forces have exercised together for decades, breeding familiarity and transparency across doctrines and operational concepts, aided by the fact that the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and ADF operate US-made equipment in common. As their armed forces modernise further, it could be that Australia and Singapore emerge in future as a core pairing at the centre of a looser five-power arrangement.

PARTNERSHIP, NOT ALLIANCE

Singapore's tendency to "exercise with itself" is sometimes bemoaned within Canberra's defence establishment. The upgraded defence relationship is, therefore, an important opportunity for Singapore to embrace bilateral defence engagement with Australia while Canberra is actively looking to thicken its military partnerships in South-east Asia. In keeping with Singapore's consistent desire to preserve strategic flexibility, however, the CSP will remain some way short of a defence alliance.

Singapore has been unnerved by China's recent behaviour in the South China Sea, but it perceives China through a different lens to Australia and is likely to tread with particular care with Beijing, for understandable reasons. This is perhaps the most obvious strategic constraint to cooperation under the CSP.

Under the CSP's defence component, the number of SAF personnel undergoing training in Australia, will jump from around 6,000 to 14,000. They will also be able to stay for up to three times longer, through the introduction of two major exercise periods from February to May and August to November.

Singapore has agreed to fully fund military training infrastructure in Queensland worth up to A$2.25 billion (S$2.25 billion). That is in addition to ongoing arrangements, including all basic Republic of Singapore Air Force flight training, conducted in Western Australia.

There are significant practical gains for Australia to the new deal.

For starters, the enhanced facilities will also be available for the Australian Army when not in use by the SAF. Moreover, with the outcome of this election finely poised, the local economic benefit to Queensland communities where several marginal seats are being contested could prove invaluable to the ruling Coalition.

ECONOMIC AND STRATEGIC DEPTH

However, Canberra needs to appreciate the benefits on a strategic level. Singapore's intensified defence interest in Australia, as a source of depth, cements its status as the state in South-east Asia with most invested in its relationship with Australia. Since Australia is seeking to expand its defence partnerships in the region, against the background of South-east Asia's rising strategic profile, Singapore's reliability counts more than ever.

Singapore offers Australia strategic advantages as a secure forward operating location offering direct access to the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea.

As a gateway to Asean's growing single market and a channel to investment, Singapore offers Australia additional economic depth. Singapore is Australia's fifth-largest trading partner, and its biggest within Asean. The cumulative stock of Singaporean investment in Australia stands above A$80 billion. The economic relationship has not always been plain sailing. Singapore's plans to acquire such high-profile targets as the Australian Stock Exchange and Optus, encountered opposition and were ultimately blocked. But much water has passed under the bridge since then.

South-east Asia is taking on heightened importance for Australia's economic future as a source of diverse opportunity, now that North-east Asia's growth has slowed. Defence construction in Queensland aside, Singaporean capital and know-how is also being directed to Northern Australia via an Agribusiness Development Partnership.

Singapore is a natural partner for Australia because of commonalities in outlook and capability that are unmatched elsewhere in the region. Beyond its national security and defence resources, Singapore can serve as a hub for Australia's growing security interests in South-east Asia, including counter-terrorism, just as it does in the economic sphere. Capabilities aside, the most important attributes to this partnership are non-material: a shared mindset, a common outlook and a willingness to commit for the long term.

• Dr Euan Graham is director, International Security Program, at the Lowy Institute based in Sydney, Australia.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 23, 2016, with the headline 'The lion and the kangaroo'. Print Edition | Subscribe