Singapore and the US have made global headlines by signing a defense agreement, with the most notable aspect of it being the right for the US to deploy P-8 Poseidon spy planes in the Southeast Asian nation.
The agreement was broader then the spy plane deployments (for instance, both countries agreed to cooperate on cyber defense and biosecurity). Despite that, focus has been placed on the P-8 Poseidon deployment to Singapore due to China’s going ongoing activities in the South China Sea.
Those activities have unsurprisingly led to the growing belief that the spy plane deployments are a direct response to China’s territorial claims to, and actions in, the Sea. Such actions, which include building an artificial island and airstrips, have been a source of disagreement between many nations in Southeast Asia as well as the US, which has traditionally been an influential power in the area.
What’s in it for Singapore?
At first glance, allowing US P-8 Poseidon’s to be deployed in Singapore may seem like a surprising move for Singapore. A country that aims to be the famously neutral “Switzerland of Asia”, Singapore has been known to have positive relations with most of the global and regional powers.
According to Singaporean Government figures, China was the largest investment destination for the country’s corporate sector in 2013, with SGD$103.3 billion (US$73.4 billion). This was more than double the amount invested in the UK, which was the second largest investment destination in that year.
While the country has obvious major interests in China, the same can also said with the US. Although China was the largest source of Singaporean investment out of the country, the US was the biggest source of investment money that came into Singapore in 2013, with SGD$114.2 (US81.3 billion) of US money invested in the nation.
It can be seen that for Singapore, protecting and enhancing its relations in the US are in its primary interest. The same can be said about China, and Singapore potentially risks its relation with the major Asian power by allowing US spy planes to be deployed in the country.
However, China’s ongoing actions in the South China Sea are an even larger risk to Singapore, whose global appeal largely consists of its booming business and shipping sectors. These sectors have the potential to be adversely affected if China’s actions in the sea result in greater instability in the region, as domestic and regional stability are a must for a flourishing business sector.
Most ships that dock or pass through Singapore also pass, or have passed, through the South China Sea. Should China’s continuing actions decrease its appeal as a shipping lane, there is a major chance that ships may bypass Singapore completely, which would also negatively affect its economy. Because of this, Singapore’s decision to allow US P-8 Poseidon planes to be deployed in Singapore is a small risk the country is willing to take to counteract what it sees a potential threat to its economy.
What’s in it for the US?
As a superpower, the US has been seen by many pundits as a deceasing influence in global affairs. Despite that view, the US still has a number of major economic, strategic and military interests throughout Asia.
Three of the US’s key allies – South Korea, Japan and Taiwan – are in East Asia and are heavily reliant on energy imports, much of which is shipped through the South China Sea. Around half of Japan’s total energy supply consists of oil, of which approximately 90 per cent is sourced from the Middle East. For Taiwan and South Korea, the percentage of energy exports that consisted of oil was 48 and 39 per cent respectively, with the overwhelming majority also being shipped through Asian shipping lanes.
All three of those nations remain strategically significant to the US, and therefore it is in their best interests that there are no major obstacles or interruptions to the importation of their primary sources of energy. Should those interruptions occur, they will likely have a detrimental results to the Japanese, Taiwanese and South Korean economies, which would adversely affect the US’s regional interests.
Chinese control of the South China Sea would also directly challenge the US’s long-held naval influence in the region. By directly establishing itself in the South China Sea, China is directly challenging the US’s influence in the area, which is of high importance to both powers. Given that the US sent a destroyer near a Chinese-claimed artificial island only two weeks ago, it can be seen that the US takes growing Chinese activity in the sea seriously.
By enhancing its defense relations with Singapore and deploying its spy planes in that country, the US has another medium to keep its interests in the region intact. It also has another way to both monitor China’s activities in the South China Sea and help ensure its Southeast and East Asian allies’ energy and economic interests are not threatened.