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Australia, Singapore and the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership: further room for improvement

Published 20 Sep 2016

In May this year, Australia and Singapore finalised negotiations surrounding the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP), an agreement designed to elevate bilateral relations between the two countries across various aspects of government.

There is no denying that the signing of the CSP was a big step forward for the defence relationship between the two Asian states. But with a resurgence of isolationist sentiment in the United States (US) and an ongoing political crisis in Malaysia, Australia’s closest strategic partner in Southeast Asia, the CSP should have gone a lot further.

One of the main reasons why Australia and Singapore should have further elevated their defence partnership is the increasing uncertainty surrounding America’s future commitment to the Asia-Pacific region.

In Australia and Singapore, there is a growing anxiety about the isolationist foreign policy platforms being forwarded by both US presidential candidates.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has vowed to stop the landmark Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) if elected. This has rightfully generated concern in Canberra as the TPP has come to symbolise America’s commitment to the Asia-Pacific region. For Australia, a failure by Congress to ratify the TPP would signal the beginnings of a damaging US retreat from the region.

America’s stance on the TPP has also created unease over America’s ongoing commitment to the region in Singapore. On a recent visit to Washington, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong commented (from 46.49) that if America could not follow through on trade deals, its partners in Asia would begin to question whether or not the US could be trusted to follow through on its security agreements.

In addition to opposing the TPP, Republican candidate Donald Trump has made it clear that if elected, his plan to put “America First” would involve withdrawing US troops from the Asia-Pacific and making American allies pay more for their own security. Most concerning though is Trump’s assertion that Japan and South Korea should acquire nuclear weapons.

Such policies, if enacted, could further exacerbate the Asian Arms Race that is already well underway. Moreover, these policies would unravel the security architecture of the Asia-Pacific region, which has facilitated the extraordinary growth and prosperity experienced by Australia and Singapore since the end of the Second World War.

With this growing uncertainty about America’s continued willingness to enforce order and provide security in the Asia-Pacific, former Australian Defence Minister and Ambassador to the US Kim Beazley was correct when he argued that Australia cannot afford to sit back and do nothing.

One way in which both Australia and Singapore can proactively work to ensure their continued security and prosperity is by further elevating their defence relationship. While it may seem like an odd paring based on their dissimilar geography, population and culture, Australia and Singapore, the odd men out in Asia, are natural strategic partners.

Not only do they have a history of cooperation and training together, they also have similar sized militaries and equal strategic capability. Most importantly though, Australia and Singapore have a shared strategic outlook, with both states determined to ensure freedom of navigation and regional stability in Southeast Asia.

Canberra and Singapore should capitalise on this strategic convergence and push for even greater military links than those which were set out in the CSP. This could include more bilateral military exercises, as well as joint maritime and aerial patrols of trade routes throughout Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.

The respective governments should also consider permanently deploying a contingent of Australian maritime reconnaissance aircraft to Singapore. Currently, Australia conducts routine patrols of the Malacca Straits and the South China Sea from Butterworth, Malaysia.

Although it is unlikely, the ongoing political crisis in Malaysia could undermine Australia’s access to RMAF Base Butterworth. This would drastically limit Australia’s ability to conduct surveillance over its northern approaches and vital sea lanes of communication.

With the CSP increasing the number of Singaporean troops rotating through Australia to 14,000 annually, it would not be beyond the realm of possibility for Australia to request the stationing of reconnaissance aircraft in Singapore. The increases to intelligence sharing set out by the CSP would also mean that Singapore would benefit greatly from the information gathered on these surveillance missions.

The deployment of Australian P-3 Orion and later P-8 Poseidon aircraft to Singapore represents just one mutually beneficial way in which the two nations can significantly increase their defence partnership.

With the resurgence of isolationist sentiment in the US, it is becoming increasingly clear that Australia and Singapore cannot continue to rely on American commitments to enforce order and provide security in the Asia-Pacific. They must therefore, capitalise on a shared strategic outlook and further increase their already strong defence relationship.

By working together, Australia and Singapore can help to ensure their continued security and prosperity.

Benjamin Robbins is currently in his final year of a Bachelor of Arts majoring in International Relations and History at the University of New South Wales. He is particularly interested in Australian defence policy and international affairs in Southeast Asia. Ben has recently had an essay that mapped how events in Asia influenced Australia’s national defence policy published by E-International Relations. While on exchange at the National University of Singapore, he conducted field research on Human Trafficking throughout Thailand and Cambodia, interviewing officials from the U.S. State Department, the United Nations and various Non-Government Organisations. After completing honours next year and working overseas in the not-for- profit sector, Ben wishes to pursue a career in the public service.