On 6 May, as virtually his last act of policy before calling a general election, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced an enhanced defence training agreement with Singapore, as part of the new Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) between Australia and Singapore.
Australian and Singaporean officials have been working on the CSP since last June’s Joint Declaration by prime ministers Abbott and Lee. While some details have yet to be finalised, and Mr Lee’s planned visit has had to be postponed, that the CSP roll-out was fast-tracked ahead of the Australian election campaign is a sign of the importance this upgrade in bilateral relations has for both countries. As a fellow ‘odd man out’ in its region, Singapore may be the state in Southeast Asia that needs Australia most, given its long-standing defence interest in Australia as a source of strategic depth.
The Lowy Institute will shortly be publishing my analysis of the Australia-Singapore CSP, 'Size Isn’t Everything', focusing on the defence and security aspects of the relationship. With that in mind, it’s worth highlighting the key points of the defence deal announced last week, and its wider strategic significance.
The centrepiece of the new defence cooperation deal involves an approximate doubling of Singapore’s access to military training in Australia. The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) already have a large footprint in Australia, including all basic flight training, in Western Australia. Up to 6,000 troops and 400 SAF platforms, including armour, artillery, aircraft and helicopters, take part annually in a tri-service exercise in Queensland’s Shoalwater Bay training area, which is three times the size of Singapore.
The city state’s lack of space has led it to put in place an elaborate web of overseas training arrangements, involving a dozen countries. Australia is now emerging as the most important of these, offering access to training, under tropical conditions, on an unmatched scale. Singapore’s defence investment in Queensland may well presage a consolidation into Australia as its primary training location overseas.
Under the new CSP defence arrangements announced last week, covering a 25-year period, Singapore will receive expanded access to Shoalwater Bay and training areas around Townsville. This entails more than doubling the number of SAF personnel rotating annually through Australia, to 14,000. They will also be able to stay for up to 18 weeks per year, up from 6 weeks previously. To accommodate this expanded presence, Singapore has agreed to fully fund the new training facilities in Queensland to the tune of $2.25 billion: a 'massive investment in Defence infrastructure in Australia', according to Mr Turnbull. The enhanced facilities will also be available for the Australian Army when not in use by the SAF.
It was further reported last week that air force training will be intensified. The details of this have yet to be fixed, but it is understood that RSAF pilots will be able to train in Australia for up to six months per year.
Defence is just one element of the CSP, which mandates closer cooperation in trade and investment, foreign policy, and people-to-people links . Broader security ties will extend to intelligence and law enforcement cooperation, including the two countries overlapping counter-terrorism interests. Officials and uniformed personnel will be posted in each other’s countries, as an indication of depth to the government-to-government relationship. This, according to Lee Hsien Loong, rests on the assumption that Singapore and Australia are 'politically like-minded, strategically-aligned and economically complementary'.
In the context of an election campaign, now officially under way, Malcolm Turnbull and trade envoy Andrew Robb lost no time in extolling the employment and infrastructural benefits of the defence deal as a 'much needed boost to local economies' in northern Queensland.
Singapore’s willingness to pay for enhanced access to defence training in Australia, although welcome, should not distract from an enduring, two-way underpinning to Australia’s interactions with Singapore. This goes beyond the wider quid pro quo within the CSP, whereby Canberra is improving the terms of its economic access to Singapore in return for granting Singapore more access to military training areas in Australia.
Singapore’s stock is also rising, for Australia, in the context of Southeast Asia’s rising strategic profile. The city state can also add strategic depth for Australia. This reflects its enduring strategic function as a forward operating location situated at the fulcrum between the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea. Singapore’s military capabilities are second to none in Southeast Asia. However, the most important strategic attributes Singapore brings to the partnership are non-material: a shared mindset, strategic outlook and a willingness to commit for the long term.
Singapore’s agreement to pay for the new facilities could draw favourable comparisons with the festering disagreement between Washington and Canberra over whom should pay for upgraded facilities to host the US Marine contingent near Darwin . That, however, would be to ignore the wider alliance benefits that the US presence brings, which Canberra should be prepared to pay for.
Singapore’s forces are welcome in Australia. Hopefully their enhanced presence here will lead to deeper bilateral cooperation with the ADF, complementing their long-standing interactions in the region through the Five Power Defence Arrangement. The CSP is a major step forward, but it is not a military alliance.
Photo courtesy of Australian Defence Image Library