Malcolm Turnbull hails 'massive upgrade' in bilateral ties with Singapore

Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull speaking at a press conference in Sydney on May 6, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has welcomed a pact with Singapore which he described as a "massive upgrade" in ties.

Heralding the partnership as a "landmark deal", Mr Turnbull said yesterday that it would boost the economy and help to open trade doors for Australia across the region.

"This is a great day… this is a massive upgrading of our relationship with Singapore," he told reporters.

Noting the benefits of Australia's 33-year-old economic pact with New Zealand, he said: "We've seen similar growth in trade with Singapore, but this (partnership) will accelerate it, and right through the region."

Mr Turnbull, who is believed to be close to calling an early election on July 2, was quick to highlight the benefits of the pact for jobs and trade, especially in Queensland where Singapore will invest in military training facilities and train some 14,000 troops a year.

"This is going to create thousands of jobs in construction, in tourism, in investment," he said. "It is a very, very significant commitment to investment in north Queensland."

Analysts in Australia said the closer defence and economic ties with Singapore came against the backdrop of China's rise and the growing potential for regional turbulence.

"The context is in large part the rise of China, but it's not just about China," Professor Rory Medcalf, from the Australian National University, told Fairfax Media.

"Singapore is famously pragmatic and recognises the need for smaller and middle powers to work together on security, because of uncertainties about Indo-Pacific power balance more generally, including the future United States posture."

A Lowy Institute expert on international security, Dr Euan Graham, who has authored a forthcoming report on the Australia-Singapore security partnership, told The Straits Times that Singapore was possibly the only state in the region that "sees an equal or greater strategic value to the relationship".

"Singapore and Australia are both 'odd men out' in the region, albeit in different ways, and thus feel insecure in their strategic environments," he said.

"While Australia and Singapore do not have identical threat perceptions, they share a 'common strategic outlook', on concerns from Islamist terrorism and cyber vulnerability, to managing great-power competition in Asia."

Asked whether China may be concerned about the deepening ties, Mr Turnbull said the pact was part of a push by Canberra to expand relations with countries across the region, which in turn would help to bolster regional stability.

The ruling coalition has signed free trade deals with China, Japan and South Korea since winning the 2013 election.

An Australian MP who helped to forge the deal, former trade minister Andrew Robb, said that the expanded economic and defence ties will "lock in a deep friendship in a most powerful way".

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 07, 2016, with the headline Malcolm Turnbull hails 'massive upgrade' in bilateral ties with Singapore. Subscribe