Lee deepens Australian ties

Australian, US and Singaporean troops fire at Puckapunyal, Australia. Source: Wikimedia
Singapore has called on China to engage “constructively” with other players, including the USA, to ease tensions in the South China Sea.

During a visit to Australia to deepen military ties, prime ministers Malcolm Turnbull and Lee Hsien Loong are also signing an updated trade pact in Canberra, upgrading education, law, financial and professional services, which will get greater freedoms and access.

Australian law firms will also get greater certainty to practice Singaporean law.

Singapore was Australia’s fifth-largest trading partner in 2015, while China is Australia’s most important economic partner.

Lee told the Australian parliament that he also wanted a “stable and orderly world in which countries big and small can prosper in peace”.

“This requires an open and inclusive social regional order where all the major powers can participate,” Lee said. “We feel quite at home in each other’s countries.”

Singapore has faced increasing diplomatic pressure from Beijing amid overlapping territorial claims in the sea through which an estimated US$5 trillion in trade passes each year.

While Singapore claims neutrality, Beijing largely sees the Lion City as siding with international efforts to pressure China into accepting the international tribunal’s decision in The Hague on July 12 that rejected Chinese territorial claims. Beijing dismissed the ruling as illegitimate.

Singapore regularly hosts US naval vessels, including aircraft carriers and submarines, and its military frequently trains with the Pentagon’s forces.

Lee described the Americans as “playing a major role in fostering peace and stability in Asia”. He said: “We wish to strengthen our cooperation with China. We welcome China in engaging constructively with the region.”

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said both nations wanted regional stability and were “at one in defending the rule of law and rejecting the proposition that might is right”.

They are due to complete a deal where Singapore will spend US$1.7 billion to upgrade two Australian military bases at Townsville and Shoalwater Bay, north of Brisbane. Singapore plans to send up to 14,000 troops a year to the two camps by 2021 for four-month training courses, up from 6,600 at present. Despite its small size, Singapore has one of Asean’s largest defence budgets.

Singapore’s Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said in April that rising nationalism and “troubled peace around us” had led to the military budget being pushed up.

The US has been using Australia’s huge training areas for military exercises, as part of President Barack Obama’s “Asia pivot” to shift its focus away from the Atlantic and more to the Pacific Ocean. The US Marines and Air Force have an increasing presence in Darwin, on the northern coast, while US vessels conduct 10-month patrols around Singapore.

Troops from Singapore and Australia regularly hold joint exercises and a Singapore Air Force aircraft are based in Western Australia.

The Asia-Pacific region is estimated to hold half the world’s submarines and advanced combat aircraft in 20 years as military spending in the region increases.