'Places not bases' puts Singapore on the line
Far Eastern Economic Review
May 17, 2001
By Trish Saywell

Will new naval base cause waves?

NOWHERE in Southeast Asia could fallout from escalating China-United States tensions present a greater diplomatic challenge than in Singapore, which has skillfully played a fine balancing act between the two powers. Will Singapore's new naval base rock the boat? In March, the US aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk docked at Changi naval base with an underlying message to the region: The US will remain a factor in regional security and Singapore is more than willing to help.

"We built it at our own expense to facilitate the deployment of the US 7th Fleet in Southeast Asian waters," Trade and Industry Minister George Yeo said in a speech in April. "At a time when the region is going through dramatic political change, the presence of these ships has a stabilizing effect ..."

For Washington, the facility meshes with the "places not bases" strategy it has used since the 1992 closure of its Subic Bay base in the Philippines. For Singapore, experts say, the base shows that the city-state is a true strategic partner of the US, and values the American military presence in the region.

Nonetheless, "Singaporeans are past masters at coming out with rhetoric that is acceptable to China and others in the region," says Alan Dupont, a regional security specialist at the Australian National University. "What they are saying is: 'We've built this for our own purposes and of course other navies are welcome to use it on a commercial basis. It's not a foreign base . . .' But how many countries operate aircraft carriers? Clearly it's designed to further enhance US strategic interests and capability to project naval power in the region."

Publicly Singapore emphasizes Changi is available to everyone. "The message is it's open to all," says Melina Nathan, an associate research fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies in Singapore. "You may even have large Chinese ships possibly using it as well." Tim Huxley, a Southeast Asian security expert at the University of Hull, says Indonesia, Malaysia and Beijing have probably been reassured over its role.

When Singapore first said it intended to build a base where US carriers, and others, could dock, there was carping from the left of centre in several states in the region. But in their leaderships there was relief that the US was being helped to stay in Southeast Asia, notes June Teufel Dreyer, a political science professor at the University of Miami. Adds Carolina Hernandez, president of the Institute of Strategic and Development Studies in Manila: "In the Philippines there was a view that we used to carry the ball for the region. It's time we had a free ride."

Though Southeast Asian nations may welcome Changi, Beijing could take a different view if Sino-US tensions escalate. The Kitty Hawk visit showed Beijing that, if necessary, the US could provide fighters to protect EP-3 spy aircraft flights, notes Carl Thayer, professor of Southeast Asia Security Studies at the Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies in Honolulu.

Moreover, US carriers in Singapore could be viewed in Beijing as evidence of Washington's resolve to maintain surveillance on China, academics say. "Some in Beijing may even read 'docking' as 'checking'--a new policy of containment that could pre-figure Cold War II," says Donald Emmerson, a senior fellow at the Asia/Pacific Research Centre at Stanford University.

At the end of the day, however, Singapore will do its utmost to avoid taking sides if relations deteriorate. Says Huxley: "In an extreme situation, such as open conflict between China and Taiwan, the US might not be able to rely on Singapore's government making its facilities available."