Yesterday's announcement of an Australia-Singapore Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP), on the cusp of Singapore's 50th anniversary celebrations, has significance beyond the bilateral relationship. The bundling together of several new economic, law enforcement and security memoranda during Prime Minister Tony Abbott's visit to Singapore amounts to a surprisingly broad agenda, passing the 'comprehensive' test. In what sense might it also be worthy of the over-used 'strategic' tag?
By pursuing closer security relations with Singapore, Canberra is displaying good strategic sense. Reliable partnerships are increasingly hard to come by in Southeast Asia, given a region-wide malaise of domestic introspection and distracted political leadership. So the CSP should be recognised as steadying the tiller of Singapore-Australia bilateral ties, which have had their ups and downs over the years.
The signing of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on counter-terrorism is an easy win, drawing on the symmetry between the two governments' upfront emphasis on the ISIS threat, and largely compatible approaches towards de-radicalisation. Separate agreements to deepen bilateral cooperation against money-laundering and transnational crime could have multiplier effects, given Singapore's importance as a financial hub and as host to Interpol's Global Complex for Innovation.
Of more strategic significance, the CSP will see an expansion of defence engagement under a new cooperation agreement to be fleshed out by July next year.
Bilateral engagement with Singapore, arguably already Canberra's deepest defence link in Southeast Asia ( according to Benjamin Schreer), is set for a further expansion of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) army and air force training in Australia. This is likely to fall in synch with the release of Australia's 2015 defence white paper in the coming months and the anticipated commitment of additional resources to defence engagement in Southeast Asia.
Singapore and Australia already exercise together regularly through the Five Power Defence Arrangements. However, one clear advantage that marks Singapore apart as an Australian defence partner in Southeast Asia is its comparably advanced military capability. Without the need for any capacity-building element, the SAF and the ADF have many more options for exercising and operating together at the higher end, and for pursuing defence industrial cooperation. For the army this includes amphibious force development, as suggested by the pattern of recent exercises. Singapore will, almost certainly, become the only Southeast Asian country to operate the Joint Strike Fighter, opening up opportunities for advanced air force cooperation as well as potential economies of scale in the maintenance and upgrade of this exorbitantly expensive platform, which will be essential to managing its life-cycle costs.
The bilateral defence relationship certainly has room for growth. Despite the impressive scale of Singapore's military activity within Australia through the annual Wallaby exercise, which involves 5000 Singaporean personnel and 300 SAF platforms, Singapore's defence engagement with Australia is thinner than these numbers suggest. Its priority has been to maintain access to Australia's Shoalwater Bay training area, where the SAF has a rare opportunity to practice large-scale combined operations and live firing. But often the SAF is effectively exercising with itself. As part of a general trend towards cross-bracing Australia's defence relations across the Indo-Pacific, the ADF should be aiming to leverage more joint engagement with Singapore from the enhanced defence cooperation agreement, including trilateral opportunities with the US. Australia also benefits from continued access to Singapore's military ports and airfields.
The upgrading of Australia-Singapore security relations should be appreciated in a broader strategic context that extends to the South China Sea, as well as in the political context of the currently under-performing relationship with Indonesia. Asked about the South China Sea at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Tony Abbott was keen to stress that 'like Singapore', we 'deplore any unilateral alteration of the status quo' and 'uphold freedom of navigation on the sea and in the air'.
Although he was also asked if 'Indonesia has pushed both Singapore and Australia into a closer relationship', it would be wrong to paint the CSP in such a reactive light. In his speech, Lee went out of his way to give Abbott credit for taking a personal lead in developing the CSP initiative since 2012. Nevertheless, the subsequent deterioration in Canberra's ties with Jakarta has made Singapore all the more important for Canberra, not as a counterweight but as much-needed diplomatic ballast to compensate for Australia's over-dependence on Indonesia's goodwill. Jakarta will remain Canberra's most important relationship in Southeast Asia, but the perils of placing too many eggs in one basket over recent years have become apparent.
If there is a downside to the CSP, it is that liberal-democratic credentials could be inferred as a diminished consideration in Australia's choice of strategic partners in Southeast Asia, notwithstanding Tony Abbott's appeal to 'common values and instincts' with Singapore. That, unfortunately, is as much a sad reflection on the state of the region as on pragmatism determining Canberra's preferences.