By Collins Chong Yew Keat
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia: The 10th Singapore-Malaysia Retreat has produced positive outcomes and expectations for greater trust and partnership, but consistent and future driven strategic efforts must be amplified in reinforcing trust and cementing a common framework of strategic deterrence and joint security enhancement.
If Singapore were to pledge overwhelming affiliation to the US, China might increase its dependence and leverage on Malaysia to further pile pressure on Singapore both militarily and economically. Singapore will face a three pronged threat in geographical security terms
If Singapore were to succumb to Beijing and to affiliate with it under future potential conflicts in Taiwan or the South China Sea, Malaysia will be the next source of dependence for the US together with Manila in halting the momentum of Chinese influence seeking activities and projections of power base in the region.
Singapore received the positive implications from China’s slowdown and the crisis of confidence in Hong Kong’s economic and financial dominance, being at the receiving end of the exodus from both. It is ready to project a future region that is not fully China centric, and will try to preserve all the current foundational indicators of what makes Singapore globally respected as a stable and matured financial centre and economic player in the first place, which rest on a stable rules based order.
Being strategic and pragmatic, Singapore is assiduous enough to balance both and would avoid antagonising Beijing where it still looks to them as an important economic lifeline, but will depend on the West for survival and long term resilience.
Singapore knows that any real time conflict in the region or a potential full fallout from a Taiwanese invasion will eventually mean a mobilisation of US forces from the bases the US is currently accessing and using in Singapore. This will mean an eventual dragging of Singapore into the conflict either directly or indirectly, and will risk being seen by Beijing as a threat during wartime. Thus, whatever way it is in the future, in the eventuality of a full scale war or conflict, Singapore will be drawn into the opposing path with China regardless, and various strategies are drawn to prepare for this eventuality.
Economic, Food and Energy Security
Singapore will need Malaysia’s assurance in food and energy security, including water and raw resources. It is wary of this being used as a leverage and bargaining chip in times of conflict, and has drafted new plans to diversify its dependence, with China and Indonesia in the picture.
Existing claims and conflicts in the disputed zones will weigh in on future calculations on protection of the chips and cards that one has on the other. Malaysia is deepening energy and economic ties with Riyadh and Ankara, and both still play a significant economic role for the future of Singapore’s maritime economic transition.
Through BRI and other tie ups, new trade routes being pursued that include the Sunda Strait, railways,ports and land connections in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the Middle East and the prospect of the Northern Sea Route in the Arctic all potentially would gradually supersede the importance and reliance on the Malacca Strait.
This would potentially diminish the economic and geostrategic advantage of Singapore, on top of other moves by neighbouring players including Indonesia with its Nusantara strategic card. All these are projected to further diminish Singapore’s regional voice, and is now scrambling to maintain its presence and role.
While Malaysia has the food and supply chain security card, alongside future affiliation and options to strengthen trade bypass option of the Strait of Malacca together with Thailand or China which will impact on Singapore, Singapore also has the option of increasing direct military overtures with either China or the West to mitigate for these risks and as a response to Malaysia.
The ECRL is part of the equation and trade of key minerals and supply chain resilience including rare earths in Kuantan and the existing Kuantan Industrial Park remain the next strategic development.
The East Coast development and geostrategic importance to China remains paramount, and so does to Singapore as it is cognisant of the new line of industrial growth along this coast linking from Pengerang to Kerteh. This provides a new bulwark of both economic and military support assets that will be of critical and strategic importance to the current and future implications of the South China Sea and Taiwan calculations in complementing existing assets and bases in the Philippines and Singapore. This also creates a new counter-deterrent effort in mitigating China’s new Ream base in Cambodia.
These include the possibilities of the new land bridge across Thailand or the revival of the Kra canal, or the revival of the possibility of the Trans Peninsula pipeline from Yan to Bachok.
The Integrated Gas Supply and Power Plant Development Project as well as Ship To Ship (STS) Transfer Hub in Pulau Bunting, Yan worth RM 14 billion will begin next year.It can also form a greater alliance with Indonesia and India to ensure that any fast and direct fallout in security and economic terms of this possible move to bypass the route will be mitigated or deterred.
The new potential of the Lombok and Sunda Strait will be jointly developed by Jakarta and Singapore, and with the equation of Beijing in the fray in solving its Malacca Dilemma.
The strategic Andaman Sea and Nicobar Island Chains remain future based on power influence that can dictate the nexus of Malacca Dilemma and have a direct impact on both Malaysia and Singapore. The courting of deeper Indian ties remains vital, and the future remains for the best strategic move of a strengthened tripartite defence alliance of Delhi-Kuala Lumpur-Singapore in strengthening maritime domain awareness and maritime security in galvanising the best returns from existing and future security prospects that all three currently enjoy, all being Commonwealth members.
This will be a strategic precursor to the larger partnership of Malaysia-India-Indonesia-
Singapore-Australia joint security and economic alliance or the MIISA Partnership which will strengthen existing regional defence partnership including the FPDA and in providing a greater deterrent bulwark against intimidations, coercions and violations of international law and in upholding the rules based order.
Singapore and the West are also wary of Malaysia falling into the domino effect during a real time war, and will need Malaysia to be secure as a bankable first line of protection and in securing Singapore, reminiscent of WW2 setting in which the British concentrated its last stance capacity in Singapore in thwarting the onslaught of the Japanese that ran rampage in the peninsula in a short time.
It is high time both countries reorient their approaches to one another, and to look at each other as critically vital partners in facing shared common threats in the long-term setting.
*Collins Chong Yew Keat is a Foreign Affairs and Security Strategist with Universiti Malaya.*