With India seeking to do more to promote regional security, Singapore “strongly welcomes” its plans to boost multilateral interactions with Southeast Asian countries lining the Andaman Sea, said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen on Tuesday (Nov 28).
The Republic will facilitate such efforts in its capacity as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) next year, said Dr Ng, who was speaking at the Brookings India Institution Centre in New Delhi.
Dr Ng noted in his speech – which was made available to the Singapore media by the Ministry of Defence – that Singapore and India share “similar strategic perspectives and interests” as maritime nations that “sit astride key trade and energy routes between Europe and Asia”.
He added: “For trade to flourish, not only is guarantee of freedom of navigation and overflight essential, but the absence of conflicts and tensions which can potentially disrupt trade. This is why both countries strongly advocate adherence to international law and norms, and the peaceful resolution of disputes.”
Dr Ng is in New Delhi to attend the India-Singapore Defence Ministers’ Dialogue to be held on Wednesday, when officials on both sides will discuss issues including India’s proposal to boost ties with countries along the Andaman Sea, as well as counter-terrorism and maritime security.
On Wednesday, the navies of both countries will also exchange a bilateral agreement which will “result in mutual logistics support and more joint, multilateral and live-firing exercises, particularly in the Andaman Sea”, said Dr Ng.
The Andaman Sea, which is part of the northeastern Indian Ocean, stretches from the Indian islands of Andaman and Nicobar to Southeast Asian countries including Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia.
Dr Ng said that in terms of both military and economic might, “India has risen to become a leading regional power in the Indo-Pacific, and the country is expected to play an increasing role in the decades to come to maintain stability in Asia”.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi accepting the invitation to deliver the keynote address at next year’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore was another “strong affirmation” of his “Act East” policy, Dr Ng said.
Mr Modi had previously described the policy as putting Asean “at the centre” of his government’s engagement. Dr Ng described the strategic partnership between Singapore and India as a “natural evolution” of their shared historical links, and both countries are mutually invested in each other’s future.
Annual bilateral trade between the two countries doubled to S$22 billion last year, from S$11 billion in 2004.
Between 2000 and 2015, the total value of India’s investment stock in Singapore grew almost a hundred-fold, from S$264 million to S$26 billion. Nevertheless, Dr Ng stressed that Singapore-India ties go beyond finance and the economy.
“Fundamentally, Singapore believes in India’s pivotal place and role in Asia. Accordingly, we have been India’s steadfast advocate, actively promoting and facilitating India’s participation in regional multilateral mechanisms,” he said.
Recalling how India became Asean’s fifth Dialogue Partner in 1995 after much lobbying from Singapore’s then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong, Dr Ng said: “Then-India’s Foreign Secretary Krishnan Srinivasan acknowledged Singapore’s role, noting that ‘Singapore was the first and, at the time, the only Asean country to take India seriously.’ ”
Asean is India’s fourth largest trading partner, with two-way trade totalling about US$76 billion (S$102.2 billion). The region has also accounted for about 12.5 per cent of investment flows into India since 2000. As Asean chair next year, Singapore is ready to facilitate India’s enhanced contributions to regional security architecture, said Dr Ng.
India’s membership in the Asean Defence Ministers’ Meeting-Plus – the grouping’s highest-level defence forum – has brought a “stabilising force within the region”, he added. “India adds a wider perspective and more robust balance beyond the United States-China strategic rivalry at play,” he said.
The militaries in Singapore and India also share a unique relationship, said Dr Ng. He noted that the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) is the only military whose air force and army trains with their Indian counterparts in India.
The two countries’ air forces and armies inked bilateral agreements in 2007 and 2008, respectively. Following the pact between the navies to be exchanged on Wednesday, the SAF will also be the only military to have bilateral agreements with India for all its service arms.
Noting that both countries will commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Singapore-India Maritime Bilateral Exercise next year, Dr Ng said of the “timely” navy agreement: “The trinity of (bilateral agreements) is now complete and an abiding testament to the strong and comprehensive defence ties between our armed forces.”
On Tuesday, Dr Ng also visited a joint training exercise between the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) and the Indian Air Force at Kalaikunda Air Force Station.
Speaking to the Indian media after the visit, Dr Ng thanked the Indian government for providing training opportunities for the RSAF to hone its operational readiness.
He said: “The RSAF gets immeasurable value from training here… We have been having bilateral air exercises since 2004, and…I hope that these bilateral exercises will last very long.”