Is Singapore exploited by India in joint military drill to ‘contain’ China?

By Long Xingchun Source:Global Times Published: 2017/5/25 19:28:39

From May 18 to 24, Singapore and India conducted SIMBEX, a week-long joint military drill in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. Indian Navy spokesperson Captain DK Sharma said, "This year's edition of SIMBEX, the 24th such bilateral combat exercise, is aimed at further increasing interoperability between the two navies as well as developing common understanding and procedures for maritime security operations."

"The thrust of the exercise [...] will be on anti-submarine warfare, integrated operations with surface, air and sub-surface forces, air defense and surface encounter operations," he added.

Joint military exercises are common. There are both bilateral ones and multilateral ones. Some operations have anti-terrorism, anti-piracy and disaster-relief missions, while others either have an imaginary enemy country or not.

Judging from the Singapore-India exercise, we can see that it is a military exercise aimed at an imaginary enemy state. But it does not necessarily aim at a particular country. Therefore, Chinese foreign spokeswoman Hua Chunying noted that "we have no problem with it if such exchange and cooperation is normal, out of friendly purposes, and conducive to bilateral relations and regional peace and stability." However, some Indian media outlets over-interpreted the joint drill as "a manifestation of both the countries' convergent interests in keeping China's expansionist tendencies in check" and a safeguard to freedom of navigation. They speculate that the exercise is aimed at China.

Even if India had such intentions, it does not mean that Singapore would blindly follow. It is true that Singapore and China have divergences over the South China Sea dispute. China sticks to the principle that disputes should be settled through bilateral negotiations while Singapore, a non-claimant country of the South China Sea, favors international arbitration.

Singapore's diplomatic moves and remarks regarding the South China Sea dispute are unacceptable to China and have exerted a negative impact on bilateral ties. This is contrasted with the Philippines and Vietnam, two-claimant countries of the South China Sea who have shifted their positions and are now willing to negotiate with China to solve the disputes and jointly explore the resources in the waters.

Therefore, Singapore's stance is not that important, and the conflicts between China and Singapore will dilute over time.

Although Singapore is anxious about China's rise, it is far from resorting to military means to deal with China. China has no intention of intruding upon Singapore, rather, as ethnic Chinese make up a majority of the Singaporean population, many Chinese people think that China should lend a helping hand if Singapore requires it.

Singapore's concerns regarding freedom of navigation in the South China Sea will not become a wedge between the two countries. China is willing to safeguard the freedom of navigation as is Singapore. Not only in the South China Sea, but also in the Strait of Malacca, the two sides have plenty of room for win-win cooperation. Singapore's military exercise can only be seen as a political signal rather than bearing any strategic significance.

China and India also have territorial disputes and India is known to shelter Tibetan separatists. India also views the China-Pakistan relationship with concern. These three issues prevent China and India from building mutual trust. Despite these issues, the bilateral relations have been keeping a generally steady momentum, especially in economic and trade fields. The two countries have also held maritime joint search and anti-terror drills several times.

In the past two years, divergences between Beijing and New Delhi have emerged over international affairs, and there is a stronger voice in India calling for a tougher policy on China. But generally these contradictions are far from sparking a military clash and the chance of a direct conflict between India and China in the South China Sea appears remote.

India has close military relationships with China's neighboring countries such as Japan and Vietnam. It has held military exercises with Japan in the East China Sea and the Indian Ocean, and with Vietnam in the South China Sea several times. But these maneuvers did not constitute any real threat to China's security and are more of a gesture.

Singapore and India began holding joint military exercises in 1994, which I believe are aimed at developing military training rather than to counter a certain country. In international practice, multiple countries participate in an activity but with different motives. For example, at the early stage of the Cold War, the US established the Baghdad Pact and the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, the fundamental purposes of which were to counter the Soviet Union and China. Nonetheless, Pakistan joined the two groups to get military assistance from the US to counter India.

If India really intends to contain China via military exercises with Singapore, Singapore may be the one which is exploited.

The author is a research fellow at the Charhar Institute and director of the Center for Indian Studies at China West Normal University. Follow us on Twitter @GTopinion


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