Thursday, December 3, 2015
China-US tift over the South China Sea will demand deft diplomacy from Singapore
There will be no winner if China and the United States clash in the South China Sea, only losers, victims and targets among regional countries.
Which label Singapore is accorded will depend heavily on deft diplomacy, personal ties and goodwill banked over the years by Singaporean leaders and statesmen in both Asia-Pacific powers.
If you challenge yourself to ponder the improbable, how severe would the worst-case scenario look on your list of improbable outcomes? And how would Singapore fare if the improbable really does hit us?
Jaw jaw or war war, one thing is clear: Close ties nurtured between Singapore, China and the United States will be stress-tested and Singapore cannot be a bystander even if we wish to sit out the storm.
This is because the Republic would appear on any analysis of places and bases in the South China Sea region. The Chinese military would no doubt be fully aware of Singapore’s role in sustaining the US military posture in the region. As for the US military, we are more than a port of call. This means Singapore will feature in studies conducted by military strategists from both China and the US.
Strategic lily pad
American air and naval logistics units in Singapore provide supplies such as food, fuel and ammunition to the US military that extend their staying power when operating in regional air and sea lanes. The US logistics units located in Singapore include Commander Task Force 73 (CTF 73), which operates from Sembawang Wharves, and Air Mobility Squadron Detachment 2, which is housed at Paya Lebar Air Base.
Every year, CTF 73 is said to move more than 8,700 tons of ammunition for US Navy warships in the region. The US Air Force's Detachment 2 unit at PLAB allows US warplanes to use Singapore as a strategically-located lily pad to refuel, resupply and as a crew rest stop for American air power as it stretches its wings across the Asia-Pacific.
Since 1992, the arrangement for Singapore to host US military logistics units has sustained the American presence in the region, which has had a stabilising effect for the region. Since the arrangement took effect, Singapore has served as the swing around point for US Pacific forces headed to various wars in the Middle East and Horn of Africa. The Lion City also served a pivotal role in various humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations, providing succour to US ships and planes carrying relief to South Asia, Indonesia and the Philippines.
If one ponders the improbable should China-US relations heat up, what sort of turbulence would this arrangement face?
Weathering the storm
China is unlikely to sit quietly if such support to US forces is continued, or worse, ratcheted up in scale to underpin US military operations in the region.
On the other hand, the special relationship between Singapore and the US will come under strain if the Republic is no longer a lily pad for American military forces.
Any meddling with the peacetime status quo by Singapore is likely to provoke a response from either side. Indeed, former US President George W. Bush's firm stand on the global war of terror, immortalised in the phrase "you are either with us or against us" is likely to swing into play when Singapore is forced to show its hand.
There is no model answer, no easy precedent to lean on should Singapore's position in a China-US clash put us to the test. Indeed, the web of relationships in the diplomatic and military spheres is complex.
We need to count on astute interventions by our diplomats and leaders – many of which take place away from the public eye - should the improbable happen and we suddenly find ourselves under close and intense scrutiny by both powers.
Posted by David Boey at 5:21 AM