Australia, Singapore say defence pact should not worry China
China should not see increased military cooperation between Singapore and Australia through a deal that will dramatically expand northern Australian training facilities as an attempt to contain it, the two prime ministers said on Thursday.
Australian and Singaporean officials signed a pact under which Singapore will spend up to A$2.25 billion Australian dollars (US$1.7 billion) to double the capacity of its facilities in military training areas in Queensland state.
I don’t think that Singapore and Australia together could possibly be seen as a bloc … We are good friends
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong
Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said China is the biggest trading partner of both Singapore and Australia. The agreement was part of regional cooperation, he said.
“I don’t think that Singapore and Australia together could possibly be seen as a bloc” against China, Lee told reporters. “We are good friends, but we are not treaty allies and neither are we opposed to any countries in the region.”
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said he agreed with Lee and his view that the US military presence in the Asia-Pacific region had underpinned the region’s stability and prosperity for the past 40 years.
“That extraordinary growth, perhaps most of all in China, has been underpinned by that foundation of peace,” Turnbull said. “The importance of American engagement in our region cannot be overstated.”
As well as US military involvement in the region, both prime ministers hoped the US Congress would agree to join the 12-country Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, even though both major presidential nominees, Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, have come out against the pact.
Under the new defence deal, the Singapore military will triple its annual access to the Australian training grounds to 18 weeks. Singapore troop numbers will increase from 6,600 to 14,000.
The Chinese Embassy in Australia did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
China’s relations with Singapore have been strained in recent weeks, after the city state’s reported insistence on including content that backed the Philippines’ position on an international arbitration ruling on claims to the South China Sea in the final document of the Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Venezuela early last month.
Beijing should impose sanctions and retaliate against Singapore to make it “pay the price for seriously damaging China’s interests”, an influential Chinese defence adviser told state radio in relation to the incident.
Prior to this, Singapore’s ambassador to China and the editor-in-chief of nationalistic Chinese tabloid Global Times became caught up in a heated row over a report on the city state’s role in the South China Sea dispute relating to the Venezuela summit.
Separately, China hopes that Australia acts and speaks with caution on the South China Sea and that its words and actions on the matter match each other, a senior Chinese officer told the visiting head of the Australian Defence Force.
Australia has previously drawn criticism from China for running surveillance flights over disputed islands in the South China Sea and supporting US freedom of navigation exercises there. However, Australia has not conducted a unilateral freedom of navigation voyage of its own.
Meeting in Beijing, Vice Chairman of China’s Central Military Commission Fan Changlong told Australia’s Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin that China hopes to push forward the healthy and stable development of bilateral military ties, China’s Defence Ministry said late on Wednesday.
China “hopes that on the South China Sea issue the Australian side can speak and act cautiously, and that its words and deeds match”, the ministry paraphrased Fan as saying. He did not elaborate.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea where about US$5 trillion sea-borne trade passes annually. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims on parts of the sea, which is believed to have rich deposits of oil and gas.
China has been angered by US freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea, while China’s building of artificial islands there including new airstrips has rattled nerves around the region.
In July, an arbitration court in the Hague said China’s claims to the waterway were invalid, after a case was brought by the Philippines. Beijing has refused to recognise the ruling.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull discussed the South China Sea with Chinese President Xi Jinping last month, stressing the importance of complying with international law.
Additional reporting by Reuters