It’s not always about China, or so say defence analysts amid the hoopla over Singapore’s decision to grant Indian warships greater access to its Changi Naval Base, a logistics hub for the US military.
Some Indian media outlets immediately characterised last week’s agreement as a deliberate move done with an “an eye on China”, while one Singaporean opposition politician derided the government for a deal he said would derail efforts to “repair our damaged relations with China”.
The timing of the agreement also coincides with speculation that India, Japan, the US and Australia will soon formally reconvene the dormant Quadrilateral grouping first initiated in 2007 as a counterbalance to China’s rising dominance in Asia.
Military experts said the “countering China” narrative was misleading and ignored the nuanced objectives of the deepened naval ties between the two countries.
India and Singapore already conduct exercises each year but this new partnership crucially gives Indian warships wider access to Changi Naval Base, the deep-draft vessel pier that serves as a port for the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet. In recent years, the naval base has been used for the rotational deployment of US combat ships to the disputed South China Sea, where American forces regularly conduct exercises. In response to This Week in Asia queries, the Singapore defence ministry said the base had hosted “more than 2,000 visits by foreign warships from 30 countries” since 2001.
Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, who was in New Delhi for talks with his Indian counterpart Nirmala Sitharaman, said he hoped the agreement would see more Indian warships calling at the facility.
Rather than some elaborate ploy targeted at China, Collin Koh, a Singapore-based maritime security analyst, said the agreement was part of the Lion City’s long-standing policy of engaging all major powers for its own security.
Chee Soon Juan, the Singaporean opposition politician, had said Ng’s open invitation gave the impression the government was on one hand “working with India militarily to counter China” while on the other hand saying it wanted good ties with Beijing.
“If we are going to be taken seriously as an honest broker in maintaining peace and stability in the region, such confusing and contradictory moves do not help,” said Chee, one of the ruling People’s Action Party’s most vocal critics.
Singapore’s ties with China were frozen last year after Beijing accused the Lion City of not taking its side in the South China Sea dispute, but those differences appear to have dissipated.
Koh said the pact was a logical “step-up from the already close defence and security ties between the two countries, which also stemmed from long-standing political ties for decades”.
Indian media reported the agreement’s significance needed to be viewed against the backdrop of China’s rising assertiveness in the South China Sea, but Koh said from Singapore’s point of view, this was not likely to be a factor. Unlike Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, and the Philippines, the Lion City is not a claimant in disputes over the South China Sea, which is claimed almost in its entirety by Beijing.
With India-Singapore naval exercises stretching back to 1994, “the logistical pact would allow the enhancement of mutual support to keep in step with this relationship”, said Koh, a fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
Those views drew resonance from other analysts.
“The agreement isn’t so much a countervailing strategy to China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea, as it is a measure to facilitate sustained Indian naval presence in maritime Southeast Asia,” said Abhijit Singh, a former Indian naval officer and head of the Maritime Policy Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi. Singh said the “logistical support clause” in the agreement would allow cross deployments of Singapore and Indian ships in the western Pacific and eastern Indian Ocean.
The Singapore base will be used for refuelling and resupplying the permanently deployed Indian warship at the Malacca strait, aimed at securing India’s interests in the choke point through which some 40 per cent of global trade passes.
Analysts say India’s presence at Changi is unlikely to rival that of the US any time soon. “You can’t compare the two agreements … the scale, purpose and nature of the US use of Changi Naval Base is worlds apart,” said Jon Grevatt, a Bangkok-based analyst with IHS Jane’s.
Singapore’s naval relationship with the US stretches beyond granting access to the Changi base. The city state also hosts the US Navy’s Western Pacific Logistics Group, a permanent unit that coordinates the needs of US ships in the Asia-Pacific.
Singh said New Delhi’s enthusiasm for greater cooperation with Southeast Asian navies did not mean “there will be greater Indian unilateralism in conducting maritime exercises in the South China Sea”. “Long wary of any arbitrary displays of naval power in the regional commons, New Delhi is unlikely to plump for naval activism in the Pacific,” he said.
China is likely to be unperturbed by the deepened India-Singapore naval cooperation, analysts say.
Cheng Xiaohe, an international relations professor at China’s Renmin University, said the pact would “not pose a direct challenge to China’s interest in the region”.
And Singapore – which only recently extricated itself from a period of patchy ties with Beijing – was unlikely to be “party to any anti-China scheme”, he said.
The Singapore defence ministry said the People’s Liberation Army Navy was a “frequent user” of Changi, first calling at the base in 2002. The two navies conducted their first joint exercise in 2015.
Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s late founding father and the architect of its adroit foreign policy embracing all major powers, said he had no objections to China using the naval base in the same manner as the US. Grevatt said it was simplistic to link external powers’ interest in Singapore and its strategic, deep harbour solely to the China factor: “China’s growing influence is one unstated factor … but the fact is Singapore lies on an important sea line of communication along the Strait of Malacca, so naturally India along with the US and others want to have a presence there to protect their interests.” ■