Hong Kong (CNN) – Singapore plans to become the fourth US ally in the Pacific to acquire and allocate US F-35 warplanes around the South China Sea. The move is presumed to be a quiet preparation for China’s growing claims on the area.
On March 7 (Thursday), CNN released an analysis report on the plan of the island-nation to buy up to 12 F-35 warplanes from the US, a strategy first announced by Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen in Parliament last week.
While the decision would require approval from US congressional, Defence Minister Ng said that both the Trump administration and the Pentagon are supporting the deal.
A graphic shown to Parliament during his presentation showed dozens of military hardware the country plans to own by 2030 making the “Next Gen Singapore Armed Forces more lethal in all domains.”
The US stealth fighters, with their cutting-edge stealth jet technology, tops the list. The Pentagon boasts of the world’s most advanced avionics, engines, and weaponry in its elite F-35, saying that they are “the most affordable, lethal, supportable and survivable aircraft ever to be used.”
Singapore on the defence
Analysts are saying that Singapore’s decision to increase its military power is suggestive of the increasing concern toward China’s regional goals within Asia.
Former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center, Carl Shuster said that “Singapore probably does not trust China’s assurances that its South China Sea claims are benign, without military intentions and will not result in China taking control of air and sea commerce.”
China has been busy and has almost entirely claimed the entire 1.3-million-square-miles that makes up the South China Sea. The growing world power has aggressively stretched her control in recent years amidst conflicting claims from several Southeast Asian nations and has built and fortified islands in the strategically-located Spratly and Paracel chains.
The US continues to challenge those claims by sending warships on freedom of navigation operations near the islands and flying reconnaissance and bomber flights across the South China Sea. Should Singapore become equipped with the F-35s, she will join Australia, Japan, and South Korea as US allies operating the jets in the Pacific.
Singapore’s decision to become an F-35 capable country poses a risk in sparking more tension on US-China bilateral relations although US officials have dismissed the possibility of a cold war or containment policy with China in the Pacific.
“Beijing should see in this development evidence that there remains strong demand in the Asia-Pacific region for a US presence,” said senior defence analyst at the RAND Corp., Timothy Heath. “The network of air forces that employ the F-35 expands the possibility that these militaries could work together in a coalition if necessary. This development can provide a robust deterrence message to China regarding its behaviour in the South and East China seas,” he added.
As for sea control, Singapore is also undergoing a major upgrade. On February 18, Ms. Ivy Ng, wife of the Defence Minister, launched the Invincible-class submarine in Germany, the first of four new and customised submarines aimed at strengthening the Navy’s capabilities in protecting Singapore’s sea lines of communications.
South China Sea conflicts
In the Philippines alone, there has been an ongoing territorial conflict over islands in the South China Sea that has been occupied by the archipelago sitting right beside the disputed sea.
“This kind of challenge will not result in a change of our behavior. We’ll not allow them to rewrite the rules of the road or change international law,” said Randall Schriver, the assistant secretary of defence for Asian and Pacific security affairs last August.
Although the Defence Minister did not particularly mention China when he revealed the plans, analysts have concluded that Singapore is carefully sending strong signals to China. “Singapore does not want to anger China… Singapore tends to act quietly and with nuance and subtlety,” said Schuster.
Singapore may be a low-key player in military matters but ranking 10th among 25 Asian nations, with many of them bigger in size, shows the capacity of the island-nation to facilitate regional security and stability in Southeast Asia.