Thursday, September 27, 2012
Defending neutrality: Singapore's position in the Pacific Rim land grab
If disputes in the Pacific Rim turn ugly and involve the American military, one of the first things Singapore will have to defend is the notion that it will remain neutral in the land grab.
Rhetoric aside, the presence of the United States (US) military on Singapore soil will befuddle any attempt by our diplomats to make us appear like we are uninvolved bystanders.
Singapore has long been used by the US as a swing around point for American war machines transiting to the Middle East from the Pacific Rim and vice versa. These include warships that come pierside at Sembawang and Changi Naval Base to top up on supplies and allow the ship's crew some R&R, to layovers for transport aircraft destined for places like Bahrain or Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. On busy days, two to three MAC flights can be observed using Singapore as a stopover.
This strategic lily pad for the American military, so convenient for hops westward towards the Middle East or pivots east to (name your flashpoint) in the Pacific Rim, is likely to be closely scrutinised by policy watchers as they prepare their respective position papers.
In peacetime, the US presence will be noted by regional powers as a benign point of fact - something to be noted yet not quite a point of concern.
If and when Singaporean facilities make a clear, substantial and direct contribution to war machines fielded by the US military in regional disputes, such privileged access may compromise any noises we make on our neutral stand in the dispute.
This could spell unintended consequences for our city-state as we fall into the crosshairs of warring parties. Against regional powers with long-range missile artillery or strategic bombers, this crosshair could be more than a figurative reference as strategists work out their options against the staging area used by US forces in Singapore.
Once our neutrality is disregarded, Singapore will be ipso facto viewed as a co-belligerent in the eyes of military forces arrayed against the US.
Let us be clear on one thing: Access granted to the US to Sembawang port and Paya Lebar Airbase has supported America's regional presence under several US Presidents. But America's ability to project and sustain military power in the region is neither subservient to, nor dictated by, access to Singapore. The fact remains that US forces have long arms and powerful fists. Their forces can very well go it alone in terms of sustaining their show of force, unilaterally if need be.
So even if Singapore suddenly sticks its head in the sand and becomes a regional loner, the theatrics and power struggles between recognised, emerging and wannabe regional players will continue whether we like it or not.
Our national interests will be hurt more by our inability to sense and act ahead of the shifting tide; and our inability or unwillingness to proactively read overt and subtle diplomatic nuances and posturing between regional players.
The implications for Singapore's interests in contested waters and airspace are real and significant because our economy depends on free and unimpeded access to trade routes that ring the globe.
In such a situation, our diplomats could be caught in a situation that would really test their mettle.
Consider the strategic conundrums:
* Continue granting access rights to US war machines and Singapore may get sucked into a period of tension or conflict it does not want.
* Bar access to US warships and the city-state will earn the ire of the world's superpower.
* Open our air and port facilities to all foreign forces - regardless of flag or global ambitions - and we inevitably become a magnet for foreign forces waiting to square off against their adversary the moment they emerge from STW or our airspace (the Battle of the River Plate springs to mind).
The strategic grey areas that fall within the two extremes will put a premium on deft diplomacy and behind-the-scenes activity that ensure Singapore's national interests are not compromised.
It is heartening to note that such quiet diplomacy is already unfolding in pursuit of regional peace.
Posted by David Boey at 9:45 PM