The enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (DCA) inked by Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen and his US counterpart Ashton Carter takes the bilateral relationship to elevated levels, including closer consultations between military establishments and new areas of cooperation such as cyber security. Understandably, it has gained much attention because a related joint statement mentions the inaugural deployment of American P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft to Singapore. Coming on top of frontline Littoral Combat Ships the US has sent into these waters, there is less need to worry that US strategic commitment to Asia may waver.
The enhanced DCA is not an isolated event, even as it updates the strategic framework agreement inked a decade ago. In June, Singapore and Australia signed a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership agreement. Last month, Singapore and India announced a strategic partnership to be handled at the dual levels of foreign and defence ministers. Thus, more bricks in the evolving security architecture are falling into place.
These moves do not imply ganging up against any particular nation. Rather, they are emblematic of Singapore's desire to increase the number of stakeholders in the region and build strategic trust among them. Neither is the Republic out of sync with the rest of South-east Asia in pursuing these objectives. As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told US President Barack Obama at the recent East Asia Summit, countries in the region all appreciate America's engagement, participation and contribution to security.
Since Singapore leaders have been transparent in their objectives, there should be no ambiguity about motive. The world's most trade-dependent economy, Singapore needs to ensure that the fairways of commerce - whether the seas, the air above and even the Internet, all elements of the global commons - stay open for all to use. It is an interest shared not just by Asean states but all of Asia, including China, now the world's biggest trading nation. For that reason at least, it is imperative that as China and Asean discuss a binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, they should adhere strictly to the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties, a key element of which is to refrain from actions that could escalate disputes and affect peace.
Singapore's military diplomacy has generally kept pace with its foreign policy, which looks for friends everywhere. Hence the inaugural Singapore-China naval exercises this May. That said, Singapore has unflinchingly seen the US as the principal security guarantor in the Asia-Pacific region and a necessary presence to underpin its continued economic success. It is hardly surprising that the military part of the equation appears to have gained public salience in recent times as security issues have come to the fore in Asia.