Singapore Approves U.S. Surveillance Flights

Singapore Approves U.S. Surveillance Flights

Singapore is granting the United States permission to fly sophisticated surveillance aircraft out of its territory to better monitor China’s island-building in the South China Sea, Foreign Policy has learned.

The defense agreement to be unveiled Monday reflects Singapore’s concerns over China’s assertive stance on territorial disputes. It also points to a broader trend among countries in the region to seek out the United States as a counterweight to China’s expansionist moves in the contested waterway.

Two Pentagon officials said the deal will permit the U.S. Navy to operate P-8 Poseidon planes from Singapore’s airfields, providing Washington with a strategic vantage point to track Beijing’s military activity in the South China Sea, which is home to more than $5 trillion worth of commercial shipping.

Singapore’s defense minister, Ng Eng Hen, will sign the cooperation agreement during a visit to Washington that will include talks on Monday with his American counterpart, Ash Carter, defense officials said.

“They will sign an enhanced defense cooperation agreement that will lay the framework for closer cooperation on a number of areas, including humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, countering piracy and transnational terrorism, and cyberdefense,” a Pentagon official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told FP.

The plan to stage U.S. P-8 surveillance flights out of Singapore will almost certainly draw an angry reaction from Beijing. China has repeatedly objected to U.S. Navy vessels and reconnaissance planes operating in what it alleges is its exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea. But Washington and legal experts say the U.S. Navy is sailing ships and flying aircraft in international waters and airspace — in accordance with the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which Beijing has signed.

The U.S. military already flies maritime surveillance planes out of airfields in Japan and the Philippines. Malaysia also has reportedly invited the Americans to operate aircraft out of its eastern bases.

The P-8 aircraft, a modified Boeing 737 jet, is equipped with advanced sensors and radar designed to gather intelligence and hunt down submarines. The United States has shared more intelligence, and provided radar and other equipment to Asian partners who are increasingly concerned over China’s growing military power and its tough tactics as it asserts far-reaching territorial claims.

China has laid claim to nearly the whole of the South China Sea, despite competing territorial claims by other states that share the waterway. And Beijing has been engaged in an unprecedented reclamation project in the contested Spratly Islands, piling sand on submerged reefs, building airstrips, and digging deep water ports that can handle large ships. The Chinese dredging — dubbed the “great wall of sand” by U.S. Pacific Command chief Adm. Harry Harris — has created artificial islands spanning more than 3,000 acres in less than two years.

Southeast Asian governments fear that if China seizes control of disputed reefs and islands in the southern part of the Spratly archipelago and sets up military outposts, it could potentially dominate access to the resource-rich South China Sea. Beijing has promised not to pursue “militarization” of the area, but it appears to be building a third airstrip on its man-made islands after constructing runways elsewhere that could accommodate military aircraft.

China has intercepted U.S. reconnaissance flights and ships patrolling the area, and there have been a number of close calls in recent years. In August 2014, a Chinese Su-27 fighter jet passed dangerously close to a P-8 plane, flying within 20 feet of the American aircraft near Hainan Island.

As a result, American and Chinese military leaders earlier this year agreed on a set of protocols to try to prevent collisions at sea and in the air and to avoid misunderstandings that could escalate into a crisis. The most serious incident occurred in April 2001, when a U.S. EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft and a Chinese F-8 fighter jet collided close to Hainan Island, home to an important Chinese submarine base.

The defense cooperation agreement to be embraced Monday highlights how Singapore — a tiny island country with a population of less than 6 million but a powerful economy — plays an outsized role in shaping diplomacy and trade in Southeast Asia at a time when China’s assertiveness is rankling its smaller neighbors.

Even as it maintains strong trade ties with China, Singapore over the past decade has built a robust relationship with the American military, hosting a logistics command unit as well as U.S. Navy vessels for temporary stints — including new littoral combat ships (LCS) designed to operate close to shore in shallow waters. The first of four LCS vessels has started rotating through Singapore’s port for 10-month deployments. Singapore has invested billions of dollars in new weapons and fighter jets, devoting about 20 percent of its government spending to defense while steering clear of purchasing hardware from Russia or China. And the country’s Changi Naval Base is the only port in the region that can accommodate a visit by a U.S. aircraft carrier.

Other countries in the area are following in Singapore’s footsteps, taking part in exercises with U.S. and Japanese forces, and seeking security assistance and diplomatic backing from Washington in the heated disputes over the South China Sea.

Photo credit: Richard Wainwright/AFP/Getty Images

Correction, Dec. 8, 2015: Singapore devotes about 20 percent of its government spending to defense. An earlier version of this article said the share was 20 percent of the country’s GDP.