Last week, the defense ministers from China and Singapore held a scheduled phone call. The interaction spotlighted the state of the security ties between the two countries amid wider trends and developments in the broader bilateral relationship in recent years.
As I have noted before in these pages, Singapore-China diplomatic ties – formally opened in 1990 but dating back decades previously too – have been growing to include a defense component. Though starting from a low base and not without its challenges – as manifested by incidents such as the seizure of Singapore military vehicles following an exercise with Taiwan in November 2016 as well as scrutiny on Chinese influence operations – there have been signs of limited expansion of security ties including exercises and a new defense agreement inked last year.
Last week, the defense aspect of the relationship was in the spotlight again with a conversation between the defense ministers of the two countries. Chinese State Councilor and Defense Minister Wei Fenghe and Singapore Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen held a scheduled phone conversation on the morning of March 27 as both countries deal with the global coronavirus pandemic.
Per China Military Online, the news source for China’s People’s Liberation Army, the phone call between the two defense ministers saw both sides discuss a range of issues in the bilateral relationship. Unsurprisingly, COVID-19 was top of mind, with Wei noting China’s national response and regional efforts and Ng also offering his thoughts on the subject and Singapore’s experience as well.
But beyond that, the two ministers also discussed the state of their defense ties more specifically. Unsurprisingly, few specifics were publicly disclosed about the private deliberations in this respect, including on upcoming engagements. But the report did note more generally that “the two sides also discussed the exchanges between the two militaries within this year.”
To be sure, without additional details, it is difficult to assess what exactly we might see as next steps within China-Singapore defense ties, including follow-up measures that both sides had indicated last year that we would see in 2020. Additionally, given that COVID-19 has already resulted in a wave of postponements, cancellations, and reconsideration of defense-related interactions and there is uncertainty about its future trajectory, it is unclear how bilateral security ties will play out in this context. All the more important, then, to closely watch interactions between the two sides to assess how things are evolving in this respect and what they mean in terms of continuity and change for relations.