NEW YORK/SINGAPORE – Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and US President Donald Trump on Monday (Sept 23) renewed a key defence pact which allows American forces to use Singapore’s air and naval bases, extending it by another 15 years to 2035.
Both leaders lauded the close relationship between Singapore and the United States as they signed an amendment to the 1990 Memorandum of Understanding Regarding United States Use of Facilities in Singapore, a landmark agreement which underpinned America’s security presence in the region for almost 30 years.
Said PM Lee in brief remarks before the signing: “It reflects our very good cooperation in defence matters between the United States and Singapore, and also the broader cooperation we have in so many other fields — in security, in economics, in counter-terrorism, and in culture and education, as well.
“So we are very happy with our relationship,” he said at the Intercontinental New York Barclays hotel where the signing took place. “We hope to grow it. And we hope that it will also be a means for the US to deepen its engagement in South-east Asia and in the Asia-Pacific region.”
Mr Trump said the US was “close friends” with Singapore, and he and PM Lee had gotten to know each other very well. “We have an extraordinary relationship with Singapore and with the Prime Minister,” he added.
The 1990 MOU was signed by founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and then US Vice-President Dan Quayle, and was last renewed in 2005.
The agreement facilitates US forces' access to Singapore’s air and naval bases, and provides logistics support for its transiting personnel, aircraft and vessels.
Under it, the US has rotationally deployed fighter aircraft for exercises, refuelling and maintenance, as well as deployed Littoral Combat Ships to Singapore since 2013 and P-8 Poseidon aircraft since 2015.
The renewal underscores the support for the US presence in the region, which remains vital for regional peace, stability and prosperity, said the Ministry of Defence in a statement.
Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen and his US counterpart, Defence Secretary Mark Esper, acknowledged the “milestone renewal” of the 1990 MOU in an earlier phone call and reaffirmed the excellent and longstanding bilateral defence relationship, Mindef added.
They also reaffirmed the importance of the US’ continued engagement of the region. Mr Esper, who was confirmed as defence secretary in July, expressed appreciation for Singapore’s enduring support for the US’ regional presence.
Both sides also discussed the progress of key initiatives, such as in defence technology and military-to-military cooperation. Dr Ng thanked Mr Esper for the US’ continuing support for the Singapore Armed Forces’ (SAF’s) overseas training in the US, added Mindef.
The SAF uses air force bases such as Luke in Arizona and Mountain Home in Idaho as training locations. The longest-running bilateral exercise between the Singapore and US armies, Exercise Tiger Balm, was first conducted in 1981.
Singapore and the US agreed to renew the pact when Dr Ng and then Acting Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan met ahead of the Shangri-La Dialogue in May.
The last renewal of the 1990 MOU was done in July 2005, when a Protocol of Amendment was concluded by then Defence Minister Teo Chee Hean and then US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, extending the 1990 MOU by 15 years.
In 2005, the Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA) elevated bilateral defence relations, recognising Singapore as a major security cooperation partner of the US.
Other than the 2005 Protocol of Amendment, the Defence Cooperation Agreement (DCA) was also signed under the SFA, providing for new areas of mutually beneficial cooperation, said Mindef.
The enhanced DCA signed in 2015 deepened cooperation in five areas: military, policy, strategic, technology, and non-conventional security challenges.
Both sides had also agreed in 2015 to enhance cooperation in new areas such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, cyber defence, biosecurity and communications.
PM Lee and Mr Trump’s remarks after the signing also turned to economic ties, particularly Singapore’s trade surplus with the US and its outsized investment in the country.
“In Singapore, you are our most important... investor and in America, as small as we are, we have $55 billion worth of investment,” PM Lee said, adding that it generated a quarter of a million US jobs.
Mr Trump replied that was not bad. “We do tremendous trade with Singapore and we appreciate it very much,” he said.
The US president also lauded the “tremendous success” of his meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore in June last year, thanking Singapore for hosting the summit and adding that the meeting was not given the credit it deserved.
PM Lee replied: “We’re happy that it has helped to turn the situation in Korea around and point it in the right direction, and we wish you every success in continuing to make progress in this very difficult task.”
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement that both sides reaffirmed the good progress of key bilateral defence initiatives, and welcomed Singapore’s decision to acquire four F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, with an option for eight more in the future.
The leaders also affirmed the mutually beneficial trade and investment ties between the two countries, anchored by the US-Singapore Free Trade Agreement, MFA added.
They also discussed regional and global developments, and other issues of mutual interest.
Earlier in the day, PM Lee met other world leaders.
He and Bhutan Prime Minister Lotay Tshering discussed Singapore and Bhutan’s ongoing collaboration in healthcare and technical and vocational education training, and explored ways to further strengthen bilateral cooperation between both countries, said the Prime Minister’s Office in a statement.
Separately, PM Lee and Crown Prince Alois of Liechtenstein discussed issues of mutual interest, including promoting countries’ commitment to multilateralism, and supporting small state groupings such as the Forum of Small States and the Global Governance Group, said the PMO.