The Republic of Singapore is a quiet standout in the Indo-Pacific. Though a small island, its population of slightly more than five million punches well above its weight economically, diplomatically, and militarily. However, Singapore remains nonaligned and charts its own course between the increasingly competitive superpowers in the region. The United States can and should do more to maximize the relationship with Singapore, but it must temper that with respect for Singapore’s delicate position in the region.
A Long History
The U.S. Navy has a long history with the Republic of Singapore. The country has been welcoming the Navy to its shores since the 19th century, but the U.S. Navy’s official presence began three years after Singapore gained independence from the Federation of Malaysia in 1965. In 1966, Singapore officially opened its doors to U.S. troops taking leave from duty in Vietnam.1 However, Singapore never endorsed U.S. policy in Vietnam and, in fact, openly criticized it despite its own anticommunist stance at home.2 With the stand up of Mobile Support Unit Foxtrot in 1968, the U.S. Navy and Singapore created an official mechanism for providing supplies and contracting support to ships and commands throughout Seventh Fleet. But the U.S. Navy had already been in the new country for several years at that point.
The U.S.-Singapore relationship expanded in 1992 when Logistics Group Western Pacific shifted its headquarters to the island state from its former home in the Philippines. Singapore’s door opened quietly, with an agreement that U.S. presence in the country would never be a base. Today, Singapore hosts more than 800 U.S. military personnel, civilians, and family members, as well as 15 different military commands, forming the largest permanent presence in Asia south of Japan.
The two nations share thriving defense sales, training, and operational partnerships. In 1998, Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Tony Tan Keng Yam and U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen signed an addendum to the 1990 memorandum of understanding to allow U.S. nuclear-powered aircraft carriers (CVNs) to pull into Singapore’s Changi Naval Base. It remains one of the few places in Asia where U.S. CVNs can moor pierside. Singapore also hosts U.S. Navy P-8A detachments, contributed to the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State, and remains a key nation in the in the counterpiracy Combined Task Force 151 in the Gulf of Aden.3 Singapore is an enthusiastic participant in the Rim of the Pacific exercise, and both navies conduct the biennial, bilateral exercises CARAT/MAREX Singapore and Pacific Griffin in the waters off Singapore and Guam, respectively.
Singapore also has uniformed personnel on duty in the United States. Singaporean pilots train alongside U.S. pilots in the F-16, AH-64D, and F-15SG on bases in Idaho, Guam, Arizona, and soon Arkansas.4 In addition, Singapore was one of few states in the Indo-Pacific to obtain permission to acquire the F-35 after signing an agreement for four F-35B Lightning II fighters in 2019.5 The Republic of Singapore Navy is robust, with nearly 40 modern ships and submarines, and retains organic capabilities for submarine rescue, mine countermeasures, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
Following the Pacific Pivot
Despite shared objectives and historical cooperation with Singapore, the United States—and the Navy in particular—has not invested enough in that relationship. As part of President Barack Obama’s “Pacific Pivot,” Singapore offered to host four littoral combat ships (LCSs) on rotational deployments.6 This arrangement provided the U.S. Navy with much-needed persistent access to counter Chinese revisionism in the South China Sea, while Singapore retained plausible ambiguity regarding the status of the ships. As part of the rotational deployment scheme, ships would remain in theater, but the crews would rotate every six months, living on board but having access to Singapore when not at sea. U.S. commanders estimated there would be four ships operating from Singapore by 2018. Unfortunately, this plan has been difficult to operationalize. Last referenced by the Chief of Naval Operations in 2021, the goal of four ships in Singapore has been constrained by issues with the LCS and hull availability, with the Navy yet to deploy more than two working ships to Singapore at the same time.7
While recognizing the troubled state of the LCS program, the value of persistent access outside Japan cannot be overstated. If the Navy is unable or unwilling to commit to four LCSs rotationally to Singapore, then four ships of another class (or even mixed classes) could be identified and sent forward. The United States should maximize opportunities for U.S. sailors to work alongside their Singaporean counterparts, who have much to teach about operating credible combatants with smaller crews, littoral operations, and the gray world of maritime security.
Singapore’s Information Fusion Center
In partnership with the Quad (Australia, Japan, India, and the United States), President Joseph R. Biden’s administration has committed to supporting efforts to counter illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. While laudable, the United States has been ignoring a related effort at building regional maritime security in Singapore.
Since its inception in 2009, Singapore’s Information Fusion Center (ICF) has been located on Changi Naval Base. It is a maritime security center focused on information sharing and collaboration among its members.8 Nations participating in the IFC send an international liaison officer (ILO) to work at the center on what usually are multiyear tours of duty. The United States has never done so, instead identifying an officer already serving in Singapore to attend the IFC as a collateral duty. A plaque at the center lists the names and parent commands of every U.S. ILO since 2009. They include flag aides, intelligence officers, Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents, and attachés. Most spent one or two days a week at the center—if they attended at all. The Navy can do better than this.
With the U.S. Navy’s focus on high-end naval combat, it might be easy to deprioritize the center’s mission, as it tends to avoid issues that might be regionally controversial and operates at an entirely unclassified level. But it is for this very reason that the center is successful in what it does and is able to convene a maritime security body that includes China, all ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and others. While the outputs may be limited, they are tangible—the IFC has contributed to the resolution of a number of ship hijackings, and it is a regionally respected center for engagement and cooperation. Furthermore, the center is a major source of prestige for Singapore.
The Navy has reserve officers with the kind of maritime experience that would be valuable at the IFC in its Naval Cooperation and Guidance for Shipping (NCAGS) community. It found a way to detail a dedicated NCAGS ILO to India’s nascent Information Fusion Center–Indian Ocean Region on its opening in 2018.9 Dedicating a billet and detailing an NCAGS officer to Singapore’s IFC might not have immense operational impact, but it would be an affordable and effective way to support a key partner’s efforts in a critical space, as well as reinforce a key line of effort for the U.S. Navy in the region.
Sitting astride one of the world’s most critical choke points, the Straits of Malacca and Singapore, Singapore’s maritime position is crucial to both the United States and the larger global economy. More oil transits the Strait of Malacca than any global choke point other than the Strait of Hormuz.10 By some estimates, 40 percent of world trade passes through these waters. Both Washington and Beijing have considered the potential effects of a blockade of the strait in strategic deliberations, but the United States must recognize that Singapore depends on that trade remaining unimpeded. An attempt to restrict Chinese trade from moving through the Strait of Malacca would be tantamount to a direct attack on Singapore’s economy. These kinds of second-order planning considerations must be included when discussing a potential conflict in the Indo-Pacific.
Planning for the Future
The United States needs to listen to its Singaporean friends. The United States has few partners such as Singapore—states whose partnership it trusts and relies on, but who also have deep ties with both Southeast Asia and China. As a small state at the crossroads of the global maritime economy, Singapore is invested in respecting the rule of law. Yet, Singapore also is the state that reached out to Beijing in the aftermath of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, recognizing that Asia would benefit from China’s participation in its economy. While Singapore upgraded its naval base to accommodate U.S. carriers, it also has hosted ships from the People’s Liberation Army Navy.
Singapore does not want to be part of a coalition that confronts China—nor can it afford to be. Singapore’s prime minister has become more explicit in that messaging to the United States over the past half decade.11 The United States should avoid placing Singapore in a position in which that choice is implied, or that unnecessarily forces it into friction with Beijing. To paraphrase a popular refrain in Asia, “The United States may come and go, but China is a geographic fact.”
To wit, moments such as then–Secretary of the Navy Kenneth Braithwaite’s 2020 proposal for a new First Fleet potentially based in Singapore—announced without a mention to the Singaporeans—are detrimental.12 Keeping Singapore as a partner means recognizing and respecting the necessary balancing act in its foreign policy. This does not mean the United States and Singapore cannot disagree, but it does require a nuanced approach and respect for Singapore’s interests.
The Republic of Singapore is an indispensable partner for the United States, but not an ally. As equals in a pragmatic partnership, the United States and Singapore can accomplish many of each country’s respective national objectives without necessarily agreeing at every turn. Investing more in U.S. naval presence and becoming a more meaningful contributor to Singapore’s own regional initiatives will reinforce this crucial relationship for whatever the future brings.
As it sails into increasingly choppy seas in the Indo-Pacific, the United States must maximize partnerships like the one it has in Singapore. Thus, U.S. plans and objectives must take Singapore’s interests into account to retain its support in a great power contest. If the United States fails to do these things now, it may find itself alone when it needs its friends the most.
1. “Mr. Bundy Flies in for Talks with the Tengku,” The Straits Times, 9 March 1966.
2. “First Wave American Troops Due for Rest Cure,” The Straits Times, 13 March 1966.
3. “Singapore Successfully Completes Command of Multinational Counter-Piracy Task Force,” Singapore Ministry of Defence, 27 September 2018.
4. “Singapore and U.S. Announce Basing of RSAF’s F-16 and F-35B Fighter Training in the U.S.,” Singapore Ministry of Defence, 4 June 2021.
5. “The F-35 Lightning II for the Republic of Singapore,” Lockheed Martin, www.f35.com/f35/global-enterprise/singapore.html.
6. “Four U.S. Littoral Combat Ships to Operate Out of Singapore by 2018: U.S. Navy,” The Straits Times, 17 February 2015.
7. Dzirhan Mahadzir, “CNO Gilday: Keeping Littoral Combat Ships Nimble Key to Pacific Deployments, No Plans for 1st Fleet in Singapore,” USNI News, 28 July 2021.
8. “Fact Sheet on Information Fusion Centre (IFC) and Launch of IFC Real-Time Information-Sharing System (IRIS),” Singapore Ministry of Defence, 14 May 2019.
9. Ajai Shukla, “To Bolster Security, Britain Joins Indian Ocean Monitoring Hub in Gurgaon,” Business Standard, 23 June 2021.
10. “The Strait of Malacca, a Key Oil Trade Chokepoint, Links the Indian and Pacific Oceans,” U.S. Energy Information Administration, 11 August 2017.
11. Choo Yun Ting, “Asian Countries Would Be Very Unhappy If They Have to Choose Between U.S. and China: PM Lee Hsien Loong,” The Straits Times, 6 October 2019.
12. Megan Eckstein, “SECNAV Braithwaite Calls for New U.S. 1st Fleet Near Indian, Pacific Oceans,” USNI News, 17 November 2020.