India and Singapore: Defence Cooperation on the Upswing

10 Jun, 2013    ·   3987

V Suryanarayan analyses bilateral relations through the years and the critical way forward

Defence Minister AK Anthony’s recent visit to Singapore marks an important milestone in India-Singapore defence cooperation. The two governments signed an agreement to extend the use of training and exercise facilities for the Singapore armed forces in India. For land starved tiny Singapore, it is naturally a great boon. From the Indian point of view, Singapore is the only country which has been given such facilities. Among the “four C“ dimensions - capital, connectivity, capabilities, and comfort – which symbolise the rapidly increasing cooperation between the two countries, “comfort” is one quality which enhances defence cooperation.

India-Singapore relations have undergone several twists and turns since Singapore seceded from Malaysia and became an independent country on 9 August 1965. In the early years of independence, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was very keen to forge close links with India. In his memoirs, The Singapore Story, Lee Kuan Yew refers to a conversation with Thomas Abraham, then Deputy High Commissioner, which took place soon after the proclamation of independence, seeking “Indian recognition and support”. Lee Kuan Yew also asked for Indian “advisers” to train the Singapore army.

Within a month of Singapore’s independence, the India-Pakistan conflict of 1965 took place. Singapore was the first country to extend spontaneous support to India. According to informed sources, when Singapore started its national airlines, the Singapore Airlines (SIA), the SIA approached Air India for manpower and technical cooperation. When the British bases in Singapore were being wound up, Lee Kuan Yew visited New Delhi to persuade India to evince greater interest in Southeast Asia. He wanted India to make use of the naval and dockyard facilities for ship building and ship repair. As far as India was concerned, these were years of lost opportunities.

During the Cold War years, the differing perceptions of the changing roles of the US, the Soviet Union, and China kept the two countries apart. During the Third Indo-China War, Singapore was the most hawkish among the ASEAN in criticising India for recognising the Heng Samrin Government.

The unfortunate phase when India-Singapore relations were conditioned by factors extraneous to bilateral relations disappeared with the end of the Cold War. India’s Look East policy was welcomed and endorsed by Singapore. Singapore was India’s country co-coordinator. Events moved swiftly - India’s inclusion in ASEAN, first as sectoral dialogue partner in 1992, full dialogue partner in 1995, membership in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), and membership of the East Asia Summit (EAS) in 1995. Prime Minister Goh Chok Thong rightly claimed that as a result of his persistent efforts, he was able to create an “India fever” in Singapore.

Defence cooperation is extremely important because it implies a high level of trust. In 1994, the two countries began to conduct annual naval training operations, and code-named Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW), which enabled the two navies to “interact professionally”. The fact that the two countries were committed to maintain freedom of navigation through the regional sea lanes gave a further fillip to naval cooperation. In 2003, the annual Defence Policy Dialogue commenced, which provided a forum for a candid exchange of views on security matters. In 2005, fresh initiatives were taken and the two countries conducted joint artillery and armour exercises in Deolali and Balina.

Another important milestone was the signing of the 2007 Joint Military Exercises Agreement, which allowed the Singapore Air Force to train its personnel in Kalaikunda in West Bengal for five years in return for payment, as well as the undertaking that Singapore would maintain and upgrade the facilities available. In November 2008, a three-week long joint air force training exercise was conducted. In November 2008, the two countries entered into another agreement, which allowed their infantry forces to undertake joint training exercises in India. The recent agreement provides for the continuation of these agreements for another five years.

The defence cooperation between the two countries fits in with Singapore’s foreign policy objectives. It wants a balanced presence of external forces in the region; and in attaining this objective it would like India to play a more dynamic role. What is more, enhanced cooperation with India can remove the perception of Singapore as a “Third China” among its neighbours. Equally relevant, Singapore shares with India a commitment to the principles of secularism and multiculturalism.

From a non-existent relationship in August 1965, India-Singapore defence cooperation has expanded in a big way. It augurs well not only for fruitful interaction between the two countries, but also for a more dynamic and vibrant Indian policy toward Southeast Asia. In order to attain this objective, India should develop an understanding of the common security interests that we share with Southeast Asian countries. What is in India’s favour is the fact that unlike other countries, we do not evoke memories of an imperialist past. The closer relationship with the region has to be fashioned on twin foundations - the benign interaction of the past and the mutuality of interests that we share at present.