P-8 deployment reinforces US presence in Asia-Pacific

Spy plane issue needs to be seen in perspective; continued US engagement vital for stability in region: Ng Eng Hen

The deployment of US P-8 surveillance aircraft to Singapore this week lends credibility to the American presence in the region, said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen on Wednesday, stressing that continued United States engagement remains vital for stability in the Asia-Pacific.

Dr Ng, who is wrapping up a visit to Washington, outlined the Republic's position on the deployment in an interview with Singapore media.

He said that the rotation was consistent with Singapore's belief in the importance of US engagement and that the whole issue needs to be looked at in perspective.

"Perspectives, in terms of what the P-8 can do, have been somewhat hyped up. This is not the first time that the P-8s have rotated through Singapore... P-8s from Japan, India, have been around the region, so I think we need to put that in perspective," he said.

CREDIBILITY BOOST

As a sum total, both the littoral combat ships in Singapore, and the P-8s in Singapore, lend credibility to the US presence in the region.

DEFENCE MINISTER NG ENG HEN

"As a sum total, both the littoral combat ships in Singapore, and the P-8s in Singapore, lend credibility to the US presence in the region."

He added it was entirely possible that if the US did not deploy assets to the region while agreeing to boost military cooperation with Singapore, it might have instead triggered questions about how serious they were about the agreement.

The announcement on Monday that the US craft would be hosted in Singapore had drawn much attention in recent days as pundits debated the significance of the move to the US posture in the South China Sea.

In Washington, the deployment was seen as a response to Chinese actions in the disputed waters.

Beijing, meanwhile, responded by accusing the US of "pushing regional militarisation".

Tensions between the US and China have been high since a US ship conducted a freedom of navigation operation near a Chinese artificial island in October.

Dr Ng, however, stressed that the US deployment should not be seen as Singapore picking one side over the other. "There's always going to be these reactions, but the larger picture, I think, is that all the leaders understand that no relationship needs to be exclusive, that the common goals of regional stability are all shared. We can step up relationships with countries without having to diminish the importance or the depth of relationships with others. I think we are mature enough to understand that."

Asked if Singapore would have an issue if the US planes conducted a freedom of navigation operation while operating out of the country, he said that Singapore simply expects any country with assets going through the island to comply with international norms.

"I think the US understands that they will have to comply with international norms. I think there is no reason to believe that they won't," he added.

On the last day of his visit to Washington, Dr Ng delivered a speech at an event organised by the US think-tank Centre for a New American Security.

There, he made the case for continued US presence in the Asia-Pacific while noting that countries in the region had their part to play to ensure peace and stability. He said more needed to be done to build strategic trust among stakeholders.

To that end, he said that exercises like joint patrols against piracy in the Strait of Malacca were a step in the right direction.

In the context of the South China Sea, he said countries need to adhere to the Declaration of Conduct (DOC) - signed by Asean and China in 2002 - if a binding Code of Conduct (COC) is to materialise.

He said: "It is hard to conceive of trust in the COC in the South China Sea when the DOC is not observed. Prolonged and unresolved South China Sea disputes will weaken strategic trust in the region."

Today, Dr Ng will visit Arizona for the Singapore military's Exercise Forging Sabre, in which Singapore pilots are set to attempt night firing.

Since arriving in Washington on Sunday, he has signed an enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement with US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter and met a host of top US officials and congressmen.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 11, 2015, with the headline 'P-8 deployment reinforces US presence in Asia-Pacific'. Print Edition | Subscribe