Amid tensions with China, Singapore is ramping up its military training facilities in Australia

Warning against “the law of the jungle” taking over in the South China Sea.
Warning against “the law of the jungle” taking over in the South China Sea.
Image: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon
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Singapore’s military spending is dwarfed by China’s. That will shock no one. What might surprise you, though, is that the tiny city-state consistently outspends all other Southeast Asian nations, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Its young men are required to serve in the military, and for years it has leased land—which it desperately lacks—from Australia for training facilities.

Next week Singapore plans to formalize an agreement, reached in May, under which it will fund the expansion of those facilities to the tune of A$2.25 billion (US$1.7 billion). Prime minister Lee Hsien Loong will address a joint sitting of the Australian Parliament on Wednesday (Oct. 12), when he’s expected to discuss trade, violent extremism, and, most pressingly, tensions in the South China Sea.

Beijing is not happy with Singapore. China claims nearly the entire South China Sea based on its nine-dash line, used to demarcate what it considers its territory. In mid-July an international tribunal’s ruling invalidated that line and most of China’s claims in the sea. Beijing rejected the ruling and refused to participate in the case, even though that case was brought under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which China ratified decades ago.

Singapore—along with the US, Australia, and Japan, among others—supports the ruling. Beijing’s ire with this was evident in a Sept. 28 article in the Global Times, a nationalistic state-backed tabloid newspaper. It quoted Zhuang Guotu, head of the Center of Southeast Asian Studies at Xiamen University:

Singapore has advocated its support for the South China Sea arbitration award many times inside the ASEAN grouping. It has been getting closer to the US after former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s death, seeking to maximize its own interests in the Asia-Pacific region by using the US to contain China’s regional influence.

The article also accused Singapore of raising the South China Sea disputes at the 17th Non-Aligned Movement Summit held in Venezuela in mid-September. Stanley Loh, Singapore’s ambassador to China, denied that, leading to a war of words.

Singapore’s Lee did not back down. Speaking in Tokyo on Sept. 29, the prime minister said the South China Sea issue “should be resolved peacefully and in accordance with international law and the law of the sea,” and that if instead “the law of the jungle” prevailed, small nations would fall under the control of bigger, more powerful countries.

The agreement to be signed next week will allow his tiny nation to rotate 14,000 troops through Australia. And by letting various divisions exercise together, noted defense minister Ng Eng Hen, it will also let the city-state develop “one of the most well-trained and proficient militaries in the region, to keep Singapore and Singaporeans well protected.”