China, Singapore reaffirm military ties, but is the deal anything more than symbolic?
Nations should ‘seize the opportunity to break new ground for cooperation’, China’s defence minister says
China and Singapore have reaffirmed a commitment made almost three years ago to boost military cooperation in a move that observers said was a sign of improving trust between the two nations albeit little more than symbolic.
Chinese Defence Minister General Chang Wanquan and his Singaporean counterpart Ng Eng-hen agreed at a meeting in Beijing on Thursday to continue to work together to deepen defence ties and build mutual trust under the “Four-Point Consensus” reached on November 14, 2014.
“Both sides should put this important consensus into practice ... strengthen mutual advantage under the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, and seize the opportunity to break new ground for cooperation,” Chang, who is also a state councillor, was quoted as saying in a statement released by China’s defence ministry.
In a Facebook post on Friday, Ng said the two sides would also seek to stage more military drills.
“We want to step up bilateral exercises between our navies and armies. As Asean-China coordinator and Asean chair next year ... [Singapore wishes] to promote stability and progress in the region,” he said.
The meeting was held on the sidelines of Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s three-day visit to China, which ended on Thursday. Lee met Chinese President Xi Jinping on Wednesday evening.
Despite the mutual commitment, Rajeev Ranjan Chaturvedy, a research associate at the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore, said the announcement was mostly symbolic.
“Economically, Singapore and China have a close relationship, and Singapore is keen to participate in China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, and [projects related to] urban development, robotics and the digital silk road ... [but] on the security front, the United States is, and will remain, Singapore’s strongest partner”, he said.
The city state “will become a stakeholder in the ‘Belt and Road’ plan where it has a competitive advantage ... but I don’t see there being any close Singapore-China military links in the near future”, Chaturvedy said.
Hong Kong-based military commentator Song Zhongping agreed that the reaffirmation likely had “more political significance” than “military application”.
“Military cooperation between China and Singapore will just focus on non-traditional security issues, such as peacekeeping, maritime research and rescue,” he said.
“Singapore has long-standing military relations with the United States, while China is just a strategic partner.”
Military sources told the South China Morning Post last week that Singapore might suspend its decades-long Starlight military training agreement with Taiwan, which has long been a thorn in Beijing’s side. Their comments came after Xinhua quoted Lee as telling Xi that the city state opposed Taiwanese independence and supported the one-China policy.
Shanghai-based military expert Ni Lexiong said that Singapore’s concerns over US President Donald Trump’s “America First” policy and China’s closer defence ties with Malaysia were also reasons for the city state wanting to “transfer part of its strategic focus to Beijing”.
“Singapore is always very skilful when dealing with major powers like the US and China,” Ni said. “To prevent making Beijing unhappy, [it] has to adjust part of its diplomatic and defence polices.”
Lee is expected to travel to the United States next month for talks with Donald Trump.
Although Malaysia is a rival claimant in the South China Sea territory disputes, cash-strapped Kuala Lumpur has bought many low-cost but advanced weapons from Beijing, including aircraft, warships and rockets.
Earlier this month, a Chinese submarine docked in Malaysia – the second such visit this year – while Beijing and Kuala Lumpur are discussing the possibility of developing a mega-port near the Malacca Strait.