ASEAN: Security Concerns in the wake of rising US-China tensions

ASEAN: Security Concerns  in the wake of rising US-China tensions

by Patrick Sagaram


.The US Poseidon spy plane.

The US Poseidon spy plane

Sino-US tensions increase amid Poseidon spy plane deployment to Singapore.

On 7 December 2015, the US and Singapore signed the enhanced defense cooperation agreement.

Under it, both countries pledged to work together on five key areas: military, strategic, policy, technology and non-traditional security challenges such as cyber-security to counter-terrorism. Of significance is the announcement that Singapore has allowed the US to operate a fleet of Poseidon spy planes from its bases.

This move comes at a time of heightened tensions in the South China Sea. For months now, the US has criticised China’s building of artificial islands, calling it ‘out of step with international rules’ — especially when it came to light that it has been steadily deploying defensive structures, air defense systems and paving airstrips in the islands.

Despite Beijing’s contention that the islands are for civilian purposes, the US views this build-up as China’s attempt at strengthening existing power projection capabilities.

In recent years, the Obama Administration has stepped up the US’ security presence in Singapore, deploying two littoral combat ships to the city-state. Clearly, the Poseidon deployment is part of a bigger strategy by the US to contain China by not allowing it to fundamentally shift the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region.

China expressed discontent with the deployment, calling it an act of ‘militarisation’ by the US and maintained that the situation in the South China Sea is peaceful and stable. China also argued that the deployment ‘goes against the common and long-term interests of countries in the region.’

This is ironic since countries in the region – namely Japan and Southeast Asia nations – have grown increasingly nervous about China’s unilateral posturing and disregard for international law in making its maritime claims.

For its part, Singapore faces a tricky situation of appeasing both the US and China.

China is Singapore’s largest trading partner and Singapore has been a significant investor in China for many years. While China has not placed any blame on Singapore for the deployment, the city-state was equally careful to position the agreement with the US under the ambit of ‘relationship building’ and ‘humanitarian and disaster relief’.

Singapore relies on the US for the sale of arms, and access to its bases for the conduct of training and joint-exercise operations for its servicemen. The Poseidon deployment also assuages Singapore’s concerns over the unfolding situation in the South China Sea.

The disquieting fact is that the disputed waters in the South China Sea are a flashpoint for an all out war between the US and China. Although there have not been any skirmishes, both sides have resorted to employing maneuvers to see which side blinks first.

In May last year, a P8 Poseidon flew over the contested waters in the South China Sea only to have the Chinese Navy issue numerous warnings for the American aircraft to leave the area.

In October, the USS Lassen, a destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles of one of the islands claimed by China in the Spratly Islands. The Chinese promptly issued a warning to the Americans, stating that a minor incident could escalate into full-scale conflict.

It would serve us well to be reminded that in 2001, a EP-3 Aries spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet, 50 miles southeast of China’s Hainan Island causing a international dispute between the two countries. The Chinese fighter crashed into the sea, killing the pilot, while the American plane was forced to land in Hainan where 24 of its crew were detained and interrogated before being released. (For more on this see the CRS report to Congress.)

Now as Washington strengthens its resolve and Beijing refuses to back down, the real question is how far either side is going to go before things really get out of hand.

Patrick Sagaram lives in Singapore and works as a teacher.


5 thoughts on “ASEAN: Security Concerns in the wake of rising US-China tensions

  1. Singapore is caught between a rock and a hard place, and decidedly so as these islands are but rocky outcrops and Singapore’s geographical position, (advantageous in some context), is presently a hard place to be in.

    Singapore, or rather LKY, had positioned itself as a country with a pathological penchant for legal niceties and adherence.

    But I don’t think the Chinese have that much patience to listen to Singapore’s explanation that legally speaking Singapore has don’t nothing wrong in terms of its bilateral security arrangements with the US, arrangements that were, in any case, entered into when China was still militarily vulnerable and economically weak.

    Now, as Singapore should know, the “Feng Shui” may have shifted. Political brinkmanship was LKY’s forte. The son certainly has this perhaps presently un-welcomed legacy to inherit and a proud DNA subliminally carried.

    It is said that China is eyeing, in a business sense, the vast oil reserves in this area. So we shall see whether blood is thicker than oil.

    Whatever it is, most wars started due to miscalculations. I hope PM Lee Sien Loong a maths major from Cambridge Uni has not forgotten that one plus one does not equal to three.

  2. Nothing to worry, really. US is not going to fight with China. It’s just showing off. And China is not interested to fight with US or any of the other little countries. For Spore, with US ships using its facilities, it’s purely business, jobs for its people, food on the table.

  3. “China has not placed any blame on Singapore for the deployment” because China understands the precarious position Singapore is in. Singapore has no choice but to let the US to operate their Poseidon spy planes from its bases because Singapore needs the American protection from its two not so friendly Muslim neighbors. Konfrantasi with Indonesia from 1963 to 1966 posed the only external threat to Singapore since the Japanese Occupation. Indonesia remains the greatest external threat, follows by Malaysia. LKY’s biography reveals these facts why he brought in the Israeli advisers to train Singaporean arm forces when expelled from Malaysia.

  4. Before his passing, LKY left a clear guide of how to deal with China. It’s not simply just a tricky balance. Singapore actively work to have the ears of China officials and corridors of power e.g. the Taiwan issue and counterweights like helping India development. LKY believed Singapore and ASEAN real hope is China will eventually understand they lived in a multi-polar world they must get along with and future generations of Western educated China leaders will.

  5. /// Wayne February 22, 2016 at 5:35 pm
    I hope PM Lee Sien Loong a maths major from Cambridge Uni has not forgotten that one plus one does not equal to three. ///

    Your hope is that wishful. Hsien Loong certainly knows 1 + 1 = 10.

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