Singapore and the US: not quite allies
30 Jul 2012|

Singapore and the United States are linked not only by important economic relations, but also by a burgeoning defence relationship. Most recently in June 2012 the US announced that it would deploy as many as four littoral combat ships to the city-state from 2013, as part of the Pentagon’s much-publicised ‘rebalance to the Asia-Pacific’.

Their security links date back to the late 1960s, when Singapore actively supported Washington’s war effort in Vietnam. While this continuity, and the closeness and depth of their defence links today, might give the impression that Singapore is a US ally, the city-state’s government has nevertheless pointedly eschewed that status, preferring the strategic autonomy deriving from a less formal—if still intense—defence nexus. Nevertheless, the relationship could pose dilemmas for Singapore.

Singapore’s support for the US’ regional security role and military presence originated in the appreciation of Singapore’s elite, led by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Foreign Minister S. Rajaratnam and Defence Minister Goh Keng Swee, that the interests of their small island state, sandwiched between much larger and potentially aggressive neighbours, as well as apparently endangered by communist North Vietnam and China, would be best served by preventing the regional dominance of any power. As Lee Kuan Yew said in 1966, it was vital for Singapore to have ‘overwhelming power on its side’. Singapore has built up its own armed forces primarily to prevent Indonesia and Malaysia from dominating its immediate locale; but at the grand regional level, Singapore’s small size and relatively limited diplomatic influence and military capacity have forced it to base its balance-of-power strategy on borrowing political and military strength from extra-regional powers, principally the US.

The communist victories in Indochina in 1975 and Vietnam’s subjugation of Cambodia in 1978 reinforced Singapore’s view of the US as a vital external influence on Southeast Asian security. Despite frictions over trade relations, human rights and the supply of military equipment, the foundations were established during the 1980s for increasingly close bilateral security relations—a relationship that stepped up again when American forces displaced from the Philippines were given greater access to Singaporean facilities.

But this history doesn’t imply that Singapore would support any future US strategy aimed at containing China. A hardening strategic confrontation between the US and China might divide East Asian states into antagonistic camps according to their attitude towards Beijing, placing Singapore in an uncomfortable position. Despite its clearly Western-inclined positions on many international issues, for domestic political reasons it is extremely unlikely that Singapore could ever take the side of the US in a future crisis or conflict with China. Singapore’s population is 78% ethnic Chinese and includes several hundred thousand recent immigrants from the mainland. Particularly since the profit motive replaced communism as the guiding ideology of the People’s Republic, most Singaporean politicians, officials, business people and opinion-formers would find it difficult to conceive of China as a threat. At the same time, it is also important for Singapore to display a degree of sensitivity towards its immediate neighbours. While the city-state has over the years repeatedly made clear its resolution not to be intimidated by either Malaysia or Indonesia, it has no wish to unnecessarily provoke nationalist or Muslim sentiment in either country.

In 2003 Singapore reportedly turned down a US offer of Major Non-NATO Ally status (an offer that was accepted by the Philippines and Thailand). However, in October 2003 Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong and President George W. Bush announced the intention to conclude a bilateral Strategic Framework Agreement for a Closer Cooperation Partnership in Defence and Security (SFA). It wasn’t signed until July 2005, hinting at the complexity of intervening negotiations. The agreement’s details remain secret, but it’s known to include a Defence Cooperation Agreement (DCA) which provides for new areas of collaboration and reaffirms the importance of defence-technological collaboration and sharing between Singapore and the US. In more visible terms, the SFA also includes an extension of the earlier agreement covering access for US ships and aircraft to facilities in Singapore.

Since the SFA was signed, bilateral defence collaboration has further intensified, and Singaporean military units have deployed to Afghanistan as part of the US-led coalition forces there, and naval vessels to the Gulf of Aden on counterpiracy duties.

Stronger bilateral defence relations will benefit Singapore’s security in many ways. But it could sometimes pose dilemmas for the city-state. What if the US wanted to use Changi naval base to resupply a carrier battle group during a crisis with China over Taiwan? Or if the USN despatched littoral combat ships from Singapore to support the Philippines in a new stand-off with China? Scenarios such as these would require extreme adroitness on the part of Singapore’s political leadership and diplomats to ensure that the expanded security partnership with the US would not incur the obligations and costs that only an ally would usually be expected to bear.

Tim Huxley is executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (Asia).