Over the weekend, China and Singapore kicked off the latest iteration of a bilateral army exercise between them. The scheduled interaction highlighted ongoing efforts by both sides to continue to engage on the defense side amid talk of deepening security relations and in spite of ongoing challenges in the wider bilateral relationship.
Contemporary Singapore-China formal diplomatic ties – which began only in 1990 despite relations that were at play much earlier – have been growing to include a defense component as well. The range of engagements, which include visits, exchanges, port calls, and exercises, were formalized in an agreement signed by the two sides in 2008 known as the Agreement on Defense Exchanges and Security Cooperation (ADESC).
Even as the Singapore-China relationship has continued to experience issues in recent years – whether it be the seizure of Singapore military vehicles following an exercise with Taiwan in November 2016 or the focus on concerning aspects of Chinese presence in the country such as influence operations – both sides have tried to continue to strengthen the security component of ties. Those efforts have been in focus of late because ongoing efforts to step up defense relations were formally announced this May on the sidelines of the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia’s premier defense summit.
This week, the defense aspect of China-Singapore relations was in the headlines with the holding of the most recent iteration of Exercise Cooperation, a bilateral army exercise that is one of several components of their security ties. This was the fourth iteration of the exercise since the first iteration was held back in 2009 in Guilin, China.
Per Singapore’s defense ministry (MINDEF), the exercise, which is set to last 10 days, will cover a range of interactions, including professional and cultural exchanges and tactical training such as rappelling, urban operations, and an urban raid as part of the final mission exercise. All in all, per MINDEF, the exercise involves about 240 personnel from Singapore Army’s 3rd Singapore Division and 1st Commando Battalion, as well as the PLA Southern Theater Command Army’s (STCA) 74th Army Group.
The holding of the exercise itself is far from surprising: both sides had indicated that another iteration would be set to occur. The focus on areas such as urban counterterrorism is also in line with ongoing developments given Singapore’s own focus on addressing this as well as China’s growing willingness to engage a range of Asian countries on functional defense issues.
Unsurprisingly, few additional specifics were offered by the two sides on the exercise. Nonetheless, as I noted previously, these interactions as well as newer ones will be key to analyze in order to assess the degree to which the deepening of defense collaboration that both sides have signaled rhetorically is actually manifesting itself in reality.