S’pore, Australia pledge to work together to promote regional stability amid rising tensions

The Straits Times 02 May 2023 Share
CANBERRA - Singapore and Australia affirmed their “ambitious” partnership during ministerial talks on Monday, agreeing to cooperate to promote regional stability as both countries prepare for “an era of heightened geostrategic uncertainty”.

Following meetings in Canberra between the two countries’ respective ministers for foreign affairs, defence and trade, both nations signalled that they had shared concerns about the threats to trade routes and maritime order as tensions in the region rise.

A joint communique issued following the meeting said the six ministers “expressed serious concern over behaviour that increased the risk of miscalculation and unilateral actions, that had the potential to destabilise and challenge the status quo, such as the continued militarisation of disputed features”.

“The ministers agreed that all countries, regardless of their size, have a responsibility to contribute to global stability and to resolve disputes peacefully,” the statement said.

Australia last week committed to boosting its defence spending and developing greater long-range military capabilities, citing concerns about China’s growing military spending and assertiveness in the South China Sea.

It also plans to become the first country without nuclear weapons to acquire nuclear-powered submarines as part of the Aukus security pact it has with the United States and Britain.

Commenting on Aukus, Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said on Monday that Singapore supported the pact “as long as it contributes constructively to regional security”.

“As long as Aukus contributes constructively to regional peace and stability, it’s a good thing,” Dr Balakrishnan told reporters.

“We are comfortable with all the three partners within Aukus, because with each of them, we’ve had long-term relationships, and that’s why I think we’re able to work together.”

The talks on Monday were the 13th meeting of the biennial Singapore-Australia Joint Ministerial Committee.

Both sides signalled that the relationship was governed by high levels of trust – an observation that seemed to be borne out by the apparent conviviality among the ministers.

At a joint press conference, Singapore’s Minister for Defence Ng Eng Hen said: “We believe that Australia can play a bigger role in our region, for Australia’s vested interest is in Asia... We believe that Australia adds to regional security in Asean and beyond.”

He said Singapore would welcome and facilitate visits by Australia’s military, including its future fleet of nuclear-powered submarines.

“We believe that we would welcome Australian ships and planes to our bases, and ultimately when your submarines are ready, we would welcome them to call on our ports,” he said.

Dr Ng said the militaries of Australia and Singapore would also look to increase their joint training, as well as explore further opportunities for Singaporean troops to train in Australia.

“Every year, thousands of Singaporean young men doing their national service experience your wonderful bushlands and your weather, and they go back with very fond memories,” he said.

The joint communique said the two countries noted the progress of the joint development of advanced training facilities in the Shoalwater Bay Training Area in the state of Queensland, which is expected to be completed by 2024.

When the upgrading of Greenvale Training Area is complete by 2028, up to 14,000 Singapore Armed Forces personnel will participate in training at the upgraded Queensland facilities for up to 18 weeks a year for 25 years, according to Australia’s Defence Department.

During the talks on Monday, Canberra assured Singapore that future Australian supplies of gas were secure, with Defence Minister Richard Marles saying such a commitment was “really important in terms of our bilateral relationship”.

This follows recent concerns in Tokyo and Seoul that the federal government’s moves to intervene in its domestic market to reduce prices could threaten exports. Australia is one of the world’s biggest exporters of liquefied natural gas, including large volumes to Singapore.

According to the communique, the Singapore ministers welcomed Australia’s assurance.

“We regard Singapore’s energy security as profoundly important in terms of Australia’s national interest,” Mr Marles told reporters.

Australia and Singapore mark the 20th anniversary of their free trade agreement this year.

Singapore’s Minister for Trade and Industry Gan Kim Yong said growing global economic challenges made it “even more important for like-minded partners like Australia and Singapore to work together to see how we can strengthen bilateral collaboration and regional cooperation”.

Australia’s Trade and Tourism Minister Don Farrell told reporters that Singapore is “our closest friend in South-east Asia”, and added: “We see great opportunities to build upon the past.”

The Straits Times 02 May 2023