Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Singapore's position of armed neutrality and the South China Sea dispute

When Singapore despatched the tank landing ship, RSS Endurance, for duty in the Northern Arabian Gulf in October 2003, our use of the geographical place marker favoured by the United States and her Arab allies placed the Lion City squarely with the coalition of the willing.

Nautical charts marked the area as the Persian Gulf. But Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) personnel who served aboard Endurance during Operation Blue Orchid (OBO 1) would probably recall the quaint moniker coined for the area of operations by the acronym-obsessed American military - they called it the NAG.

Now, as things hot up in regional waters to our northeast, Singapore must tread carefully as diplomats who serve various flags will use assorted platforms to peddle their respective national positions. Such posturing will also see them seed arguments with media agencies in an effort to shape world opinion, win hearts and minds.

More than just calibrating the tone, context and syntax of our public positions, deciding what to call the patch of sea may inadvertently swing Singapore's position from one camp to the next. We need to be cognizant that when references are made to the East Sea, South Sea or West Philippine Sea, the area referred to could all point to the same grid squares.

One would hope that the stringent selection criteria for our civil service and intensive efforts at grooming our young talents has produced interlocutors who can tell the forest from the trees, and can manoeuvre deftly amid the shenanigans of regional politiking.

Our position in the South China Sea demands more than sharp minds and razor wit.

Our public position that this island nation stands neutral must be credibly explained to right-leaning elements in regional countries who may rise to challenge that position. We must be prepared for such challenges not just in words (which are easier to shrug off or explain away), but also in deeds (which would really make our policy makers earn their pay).

If Singapore gives safe harbour to an American carrier battle group as the jabber over regional waters turns nasty and mutual defence treaties have been invoked, how would that sit with our position of armed neutrality?

Should military forces from a claimant state request similar access to Changi Naval Base, do we or should we grant unimpeded access? Would that naval presence then represent a sort of fleet in being, placed as the southern wing of a hammer and anvil arrangement that allows the claimant state to command both the northern and southern approaches to SCS SLOCs?

If they come once and then come more often, what then? If access is denied, would that sit well with the claimant state and our neutrality claim?

Regional naval forces conditioned to the halcyon days - pre-SCS dispute - when warships of various flags breezed in and out of Changi Naval Base and oftentimes shared neighbouring berths, may chafe at the idea should visiting rights need to be curtailed.

Such musings may be more real than you think.

Defence policy makers in regional capitals north of ASEAN are likely to think of additional channels which could be leveraged to advance their respective positions. The addition of friendly ports of call for naval units would count as such leverage. When one scans the map for likely safe harbours in this neighbourhood, it is more than likely the little red dot will pop up in their stream of consciousness.

Persian Gulf or NAG? Batu Putih or Pedra Branca? Taiwan or ROC?

Our system has walked such ground before. And handled such ambiguity quite successfully too, one might add.

But the complex, multi-stakeholder SCS tussle that could involve home ground in general, Changi Naval Base in particular, is a different proposition altogether. And we must be ready.

1 comment:

Ngiam Shih Tung said...

You mean there's even a possibility we won't just continue sucking up to Uncle Sam ?