The outcome of the recent visit by Singapore’s defense minister to New Delhi is the latest proof yet that India is cultivating a long-term ally in the ASEAN. Although the substance of Dr. Ng Eng Hen’s meetings from November 28 to 29 were far from controversial their effects should bring about an almost symbiotic relationship between the two country’s armed forces.
Of course, Singapore also maintains military-to-military exchanges with China. But these don’t translate into a permanent alliance with Asia’s emerging superpower. On the other hand, units of the the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) have trained with the Indian military on a regular basis for the past 25 years. While in India, Dr. Ng signed an agreement with his counterpart, Nirmala Sitharaman, called the India-Singapore Bilateral Agreement for Navy Cooperation.
The occasion that prompted a mini-summit between Dr. Ng and Sitharaman in the last week of November was the second Defense Minister’s Dialogue (DMD). The first DMD was held in 2016 as a venue where both India and Singapore could agree on details surrounding joint training programs for their respective militaries. The city state has similar arrangements with Australia, Brunei, and Taiwan for the simple reason the SAF needs access to large facilities and open terrain where its troops can test their equipment.
In September, for example, 150 SAF personnel traveled to Germany where they trained on Leopard 2 tanks in a firing range.
Dr. Ng’s trip to India had its fair share of ceremonies. A particular highlight was a visit to Kalaikunda Air Force Station in West Bengal. The defense minister was received by Indian Air Force pilots and allowed to board a Tejas Mk. II multirole fighter piloted by Air Vice Marshal A.P. Singh. Dr. Ng got treated to a 45 minute test flight and took selfies in midair and posted these to his official Instagram account.
Dr. Ng’s presence in Kalaikunda wasn’t just PR though. The airbase hosts a small contingent of SAF pilots who can fly their F-16C/D’s together with the IAF’s Su-30MKI’s. This is part of a 10-year program first agreed on in 2007 allowing the SAF access to Kalaikunda. The same program got extended to an additional five years in the beginning of 2017. The true extent of collaboration between the two militaries is remarkable for its scope and breadth. While India’s armed forces are being fawned over by newfound allies like Australia, Japan, and the US, its dalliance with Singapore has been a constant for almost a quarter century.
This year featured two separate exercises that reflected the importance of Singapore’s military ties with India. The first took place from March 4 to 21 at the Babina Field Firing Range where an SAF mechanized unit practiced maneuvers with the 31st Indian Armored Division. Four Indian warships then sailed for Singapore to join Simbex 17 held from May 18 until 24 in the South China Sea.
Naval exercises were actually the starting point of India’s security relationship with Singapore. In 1993 a quartet of ships from both navies spent four days together conducting drills. The experience was positive enough to establish a yearly routine that should continue with the this year’s India-Singapore Bilateral Agreement for Navy Cooperation covering logistical support and patrols of territorial waters. According to Dr. Ng, it will soon be possible for Indian warships to dock at Changi Naval Base.
For Singapore to choose India as a long-term strategic partner is far from a cunning geopolitical ploy. Since its economy depends on the maritime traffic coursing through the Malacca Strait between the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra, it makes sense to establish a presence in the Andaman Sea and the broader Indian Ocean. Another practical consideration is India’s inevitable rise as a world power, a role that will push all sorts of responsibilities on New Delhi in the coming decades–so it makes perfect sense for tiny Singapore to ingratiate itself the same way it does with China, Japan, and the US.
Aside from exercises, the separate agreements underpinning the India-Singapore alliance illustrate how deep the relationship has gotten over the years. One of them allows both parties to discuss and share military technology under the guise of industrial collaboration. Although it seems this hasn’t borne any fruit yet, India’s enormous strategic manufacturing base does present a world of opportunity for Singapore’s own high tech research and development labs, which originated from its military needs.