Commentary

See P-8 deployment in perspective

ARIZONA • The announcement that Singapore will host the United States' P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft till next Monday was tucked away in the middle of a joint statement issued after Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen met his US counterpart Ashton Carter at the Pentagon on Monday.

But the message was not lost on defence officials and experts who zoomed in on the week-long rotational deployment, even though the statement focused more on how both militaries will strengthen ties and step up cooperation in new areas such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, cyber defence and biosecurity.

Commentators have read the move as Singapore leaning towards a US that is seeking to flex its muscles in Asia, amid heightened tensions in the South China Sea.

Some perspective is called for here. The P-8 deployment is not a significant shift in position, but should be seen as an evolution of the strong defence ties between Singapore and Washington.

 
 

First, the deployment is not part of the enhanced defence cooperation deal inked on Monday. It falls within the ambit of the 1990 Memorandum of Understanding and 2005 Strategic Framework Agreement inked by both sides.

Under both pacts, the US has started deploying littoral combat ships (LCS) since 2013. The P-8 detachment is simply adhering to what was agreed earlier.

International Institute of Strategic Studies senior fellow William Choong said the P-8 deployment speaks of the progress made in US-Singapore relations and is not a move "directed at China". "Given the LCS detachment is already here, there was always going to be room for additional deployment of US ships and platforms," he added.

Second, Singapore has made it clear that it is not a claimant state in South China Sea disputes but has an interest in ensuring the right of freedom of navigation and over-flight in the South China Sea, which is a "vital lifeline" for trade.

Singapore leaders have repeated this point. Last month, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told the East Asia Summit that all parties should abide by the principles of peaceful resolution of disputes and the primacy of international law.

Third, this week's P-8 deployment is in line with America's plan to spend US$425 million (S$601 million) to help South-east Asian countries strengthen their maritime capabilities through military exercises and equipment purchases.

Singapore joins countries like US allies Japan and the Philippines that allow the Americans to operate P-8s from their airfields. But Singapore is not a treaty ally of the US.

Bilateral cooperation is not exclusive to the Americans. The Republic has boosted ties with the Chinese, too, evident from the substantive partnership agreement announced during Chinese President Xi Jinping's state visit last month.

Bilateral defence ties between both sides also strengthened in the past year under a four-point agreement, which covers stepping up the frequency of joint training exercises and increased exchanges and dialogue between both militaries.

As Dr Ng told a defence forum in China in October, China's heft and strategic weight make it a regional security leader. He said: "We will need more of these initiatives and Singapore supports China's leadership to promote stability and security in Asia."

Concerns may be raised about Singapore's loyalties from time to time, but as Dr Choong said, these are perceptions that will never go away.

Singapore's position is clear: It wishes to be close to both the US and China, not tilt the balance of power or heighten regional rivalry.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 09, 2015, with the headline 'See P-8 deployment in perspective'. Print Edition | Subscribe