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A US Navy ship docks at Changi Naval Base in Singapore. Photo: AFP

Singapore renews military bases pact with US amid deepening defence ties with China

  • Washington renews pact granting US forces access to Lion City’s bases until 2035, underlining the city state’s importance to America’s Asia strategy
  • Late leader Lee Kuan Yew once said he had no objections to both the US and China one day having logistics bases in his country
The renewal of a three-decade old pact between the United States and Singapore that grants US forces access to the Lion City’s naval and air bases signals that Washington views the city state as a vital part of its Asia strategy for a long time to come, analysts have said.

One maritime observer said the renewal of the 1990 agreement – which was all but a formality – was likely to be viewed by China with some trepidation, as it comes amid US efforts to enhance its forward presence in the Asia-Pacific.

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and US President Donald Trump late on Monday signed the amendment to the original 1990 Memorandum of Understanding Regarding Use of Facilities in Singapore.

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Under the renewed agreement, the US will have access to Singapore’s naval and air base facilities until 2035. The first renewal of the pact in 2005 granted the US access to the facilities until 2020.

Singapore’s Lee, who is in the US to attend the United Nations General Assembly, was quoted as saying after the signing in New York that the pact reflected “very good cooperation in defence matters” between the countries. Trump said the US had a “extraordinary relationship” with the city state and its leader.

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong with US President Donald Trump meet on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. Photo: AFP

Collin Koh, a Singapore naval and military expert, said the agreement showed the US viewed Singapore as a “primary security partner”.

Despite a strong military relationship, the two countries do not refer to each other as “allies”. Neither do defence officials refer to US facilities in Singapore as American bases.

US Navy ships including nuclear submarines and aircraft carrier groups are frequent visitors to the city state’s Changi Naval Base – which serves as a refuelling and resupply point for American forces in the Western Pacific.

From 2013, the city state started hosting rotationally deployed US littoral combat ships and later state-of-the-art P-8 Poseidon spy planes.

Military observers say Singapore has served as a vital launching point for US forces into the disputed South China Sea, where America regularly conducts “freedom of navigation” exercises.

Koh said the Trump administration was building on former president Barack Obama’s flagship “pivot to Asia” strategy that aimed to concentrate US forward deployed forces in Asia rather than the Atlantic.

“[The agreement] also demonstrates its continued emphasis on retaining a viable US military presence in the region and locking in its security commitments,” said Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

While there had been some concern from Singapore’s Southeast Asia neighbours when the city state first agreed to host US forces in 1990 – during the tenure of the Lion City’s late founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew – Koh said those fears had eased because these countries saw the value in having a US military presence in the region.

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Singapore took on the logistical support role for US forces in the Western Pacific just as the Subic Bay Naval Base and Clark Air Base in the Philippines were being shut down.

Said Koh: “Mainly, [the pact] facilitated continued American security commitments, which enabled a peaceful and stable environment in the uncertain post-cold war environment, hence allowing regional countries to focus on socioeconomic development without having to devote disproportionately more resources into military build ups.”

Military personnel at Changi Naval Base in Singapore. Photo: EPA

Koh said China – which is embroiled in a geostrategic and trade tussle with the US – was likely to be “wary” of this development, but he saw this as “inevitable”.

William Choong, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the renewal of the agreement reflected a desire for stability on behalf of Singapore and the US.

For the US, the deal granted continued access to a “very vital hub” in Southeast Asia – made all the more important after America’s relinquishing of bases in the Philippines in the 1990s, Choong said.

Meanwhile, Singapore and other trade-reliant countries would benefit because the US presence would guarantee the security of shipping routes, he said.

Choong said Beijing would understand Singapore’s position.

US Navy ship USS Freedom berths at the Changi Naval Base. Photo: AP

“I don’t think [the Chinese] necessarily agree with it, but I think they have gotten used to the fact that Singapore holds these [US] vessels,” he said.

“The Chinese will not look at this in a positive light, but I don’t think they will come all guns blazing either. It’s a natural progression.”

Singapore has long maintained that its strong strategic and economic relationship with the US does not mean it is taking sides with Washington against its Asian neighbour.

Singapore, China deepen defence ties, plan larger military exercises

In May, the defence chiefs of the Lion City and China agreed to a “substantial programme” to deepen military ties. The two countries will hold a second joint naval drill next year, after holding a similar exercise in 2015.

Lee Kuan Yew, the late Singaporean independence leader and father of the current prime minister, once said he had no objections to both the US and China one day having logistics bases in his country.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: defence pact with u.s. renewed