Signing this week by the Obama Administration of new military cooperation agreements with Singapore is an important milestone for a number of reasons. It marks a further upgrading in one of the U.S. most important logistics and surveillance operations worldwide Operating out of Singapore is essential to the U.S. Navy’s forward positions in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean.
The new agreement permits American surveillance aircraft to operate off what is an important — if not in name — U.S. base in the city state. Singapore lies, of course, at the heart of Southeast Asia’s transportation and communications systems, increasingly threatened by domination by Communist China.
. In fact, Singapore’s lifeblood has always been, first under British and then Singapore Chinese leadership, an unparalleled center of efficiency, transport and communications. Coupled with its location at a chokepoint on one of the world’s most important economic arteries, it takes on an importance far beyond its size. And even more important, in the worst of times, despite its less than six million people, it has maintained its stability when often surrounded by a group of faltering former colonies attempting to convert themselves into nation states.
Perhaps even more important the new agreement continues what has been a rather bold Singapore foreign policy, a tacit military alliance with the U.S. in the face of growing Chinese strength and adventurism in the South China Sea. That’s despite the overwhelming Chinese ethnic composition of its people. It’s no secret that Singapore has pushed the Obama Administration to maintain the principle of freedom of navigation in the face of Beijing’s building a series of naval and air bases on dredged-up islands on coral reefs a thousand miles south of the China Mainland smack across a naval artery carrying a third of the world’s cargo. That challenge by the Obama Administration has been long coming and hesitant.
But for Singapore freedom of the seas and navigation through the critical Malacca Straits is the essence of its existence. The Singaporeans, in fact, view the Obama Administration as less forceful than they would hope, even though Washington recently has sent naval craft and aircraft into the waters bordering the new China bases as a challenge to their international legality.
At the same time, of course, Singapore has a huge and growing $100-billion trading relationship with China. Having a two-way advantage with the American defense umbrella while at the same time doing a thriving business with Beijing is not a new role for Singapore’s authoritarian leadership. During the Vietnam War, Singapore provided a logistics base for Hanoi in its war against the U.S. Supplies out of Singapore were a highly profitable trade route through Cambodia leading to the border areas with Vietnam, supplying much of the nonlethal materiel that kept the Viet Cong/Hanoi operations going against the Saigon government backed by the U.S., and in its last stages, a regime directly defended by American armed forces. But Lee Kuan Yew, longtime leader of Singapore, repeatedly argued the American stance in Vietnam, despite its ultimate failure, had given the new Southeast Asia nations, including Singapore, a shield for their early development.
A diminishing number of U.S. Naval ships is going to be hard pressed to maintain the U.S.’ current commitments, including those in both the East China and the South China Seas.. “The pivot” to Asia has not shaken off Washington’s interests and obligations in the Middle East despite former Sec. of Hillary Clinton’s famous speech outlining that proposed turn. In fact, there is concern among the U.S.’ allies in the Mideast region that in the midst of a campaign, largely based on bombing, against Daesh and other terrorists, no American carrier is now in the area. Whether, indeed, that is simply a function of the overburdened carriers, homeporting for refitting, or a studied strategy of the Obama Administration to limit its exposure in the area is debatable.
Meanwhile, news reports indicate that China is continuing to build and expand its barrier reefs across the South China Sea commercial artery. The Obama Administration is going to have to match its rhetoric with action there if the Singapore and other Southeast Asian commitments to the American position of freedom of the seas is to be maintained.