Anchoring the Pivot: Lee’s Visit Highlights U.S.-Singapore Security Ties

U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore review the troops during official welcoming ceremonies on the South Lawn of the White House on August 2, 2016 in Washington, DC . (Pete Marovich-Pool/Getty Images)

Following Prime Minister Lee Hsein Yoong’s official state visit to the United States on August 2, ASPI's Director for Asian Security Lindsey Ford writes that Singapore has become the United States' "go-to Southeast Asian partner" as the two countries have developed strong security ties.

In an exciting spectacle of lights and parades, Singapore’s National Day celebrations on August 7 urged citizens to build a brighter future together and look toward the “Singapore of tomorrow”. This same theme of progress was evident throughout Prime Minister Lee Hsein Yoong’s much-anticipated state visit to the United States. For a small country born in the past century, Singapore has not only made tremendous strides over the past 50 years, but as last week’s discussions made clear, it has also has emerged as one of the United States’ most important global partners.

This state visit was the first such honor bestowed on a Southeast Asian nation during Obama’s presidency. Though the U.S.-Singapore relationship was always warm, the breadth and depth of last week’s Joint Statement emphasized how much bilateral cooperation has grown over the course of the Obama administration. Such cooperation is partially the natural course of development between two like-minded, multi-ethnic nations known for their focus on economic growth and innovation. But it is also the result of deliberate effort: the U.S. bid to enhance its relationships in Southeast Asia, and Singapore’s attempt to counter-balance against Beijing’s growing political and economic influence.

The result has been the development of an understated partnership that has allowed Singapore to quietly step into the role of go-to Southeast Asian partner, notching an array of “firsts” that would have been seen as implausible even a decade ago. Indeed, during Lee and Obama’s joint press conference, President Obama referred to Singapore as an “anchor” of U.S. engagement in the region.

Of particular note for foreign policy observers has been the surprising growth of security ties between the two nations. While economics and trade have always been the bread-and-butter of the bilateral relationship, the two decades have also seen an unprecedented evolution in defense and security engagement – a development that was not at all assured given Singapore’s traditionally cautious and carefully calibrated approach to both Washington and Beijing. Yet building on the 1990 Memorandum of Understanding that gave U.S. forces access to Singapore’s military facilities, the 2005 Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA) that formalized the bilateral security relationship, through to last year’s signature of the 2015 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA), Singapore has steadily moved toward a deeper, more robust partnership with the United States. A review of the Obama-Lee joint statement provides evidence of the surprising strength of the U.S.-Singapore security relationship.

The most oft-cited development in the security realm is Singapore’s decision to host U.S. air and maritime assets on a rotational basis, which provides the United States with its first significant forward presence in Southeast Asia in decades. This arrangement will facilitate the rotational deployment of both Littoral Combat Ships and P-8 Poseidon aircraft to Singapore, two of the Navy’s most exciting capabilities. These assets will join the over 100 U.S. Navy ships and more than 800 military aircraft that already transit through Singapore each year.

Lesser noticed was the mention in the Obama-Lee joint statement that the Singapore Air Force (SAF) may develop a long-term training presence in Guam, augmenting long-term SAF detachments already training with U.S. forces in Arizona, Idaho, and Texas. In conjunction with a growing array of bilateral training and exercises that extend across every service branch, and the presence of the U.S. Navy’s Logistics Group Western Pacific at Singapore’s Sembawang Naval Base, the United States has slowly moved toward a degree of military cooperation and interoperability with Singapore that is unprecedented with a non-allied partner.

This bilateral cooperation isn’t just created in the field; it is fostered in the classroom. Singapore sends more of its officers to U.S. military academies than all of the rest of Asia combined. Of note, in 2012 Singaporean student Sam Tan Wei Shen was the first foreign student to ever finish in the first spot atop the U.S. Naval Academy’s graduating class.

The tangible results of this cooperation abound. This past year, Singapore was the first non-U.S. nation to lead the Multinational Group Sail in the annual Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise, the world’s largest international maritime exercise. And over the past several years, Singapore has been one of a few Asian nations to send support personnel for multinational reconstruction efforts in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Singapore’s willingness to take the lead in countering global violent extremism was again on display during last week’s visit, as Prime Minister Lee announced Singapore’s intention to deploy a medical team to Iraq as part of the international counter-ISIL coalition. Given Singapore’s deep concerns about a potential resurgence of radical fighters in Southeast Asia, counter-terrorism looks to be an area of bilateral cooperation that will continue to grow in the coming years.

The bilateral relationship is also expanding into new realms, as evidenced by last week’s announcement of a bilateral Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation in the Area of Cybersecurity. In this critical area, Singapore will be a valuable partner not only for its tangible cooperation on issues such as cybercrime, protection of critical infrastructure, and cyber capacity-building, but also as a like-minded partner who embraces shared principles for international cyber stability. The joint statement notes that both nations affirm the applicability of international law to cyberspace activities, an important stance that has not yet been universally embraced.

Notwithstanding all of the positive momentum in the bilateral relationship, Lee also provided a subtle warning for the next U.S. president that even close partnerships should not be taken for granted. During remarks on August 1 to the U.S. business community, Prime Minister Lee emphasized that Asian countries are anxious and watching closely to see whether the United States will maintain the robust pace of Asian engagement it has established over the past several years. Lee noted that America’s partners “need to know that this engagement will be sustained…and that Asia can depend on America.”