India-Singapore defence relations: Changing geopolitics

India should leverage its ties with Singapore to further its strategy in southeast Asia

K Yhome and Darshana M Baruah | September 26, 2014



India-Singapore relations have come a long way, with both nations set to celebrate 50 years of diplomatic relations in 2015. Although India was one of the first countries to set up diplomatic relations with Singapore after its independence, relations between the two essentially took off with the launch of India’s Look East policy in the early 1990s. India’s then prime minister PV Narasimha Rao visited Singapore in 1994 to deliver the 13th Singapore Lecture, outlining the Look East policy and the need to further its ties with the region. (See SD Muni, ‘India’s Look East Policy: The Strategic Dimension’, ISAS Working Paper, No.121, February 2011.)

Since then, Singapore has played an instrumental role in reconnecting India with the southeast Asian nations, boosting bilateral ties.
Singapore’s role in forging India-ASEAN relationship is widely acknowledged. It facilitated India’s inclusion into the ASEAN community, with India becoming ASEAN’s sectoral dialogue partner in 1992, and a full dialogue partner as well as a member of the ASEAN regional forum (ARF) in 1996. Bilateral trade and investment have grown significantly as a result of the comprehensive economic cooperation agreement (CECA) signed between the two countries in 2005 – the first such agreement India signed with any country.

While economic and cultural ties have deepened and expanded, an area where India-Singapore ties have seen phenomenal growth is their defence cooperation, which has become a key component of the bilateral relationship. As India looks to strengthen its engagement in southeast Asia with its policy to engage East, relations between the two countries are set to become stronger and closer.

India and Singapore signed a defence cooperation agreement in 2003 and a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on joint army exercises in 2005. The two countries also signed an agreement on joint training and exercises between the Indian air force and the republic of Singapore air force in 2007, and a bilateral agreement to conduct joint military and training exercises in 2008. Additionally, the Indian navy frequently visits major ports in Singapore and participates in the annual Singapore India maritime bilateral exercise (SIMBEX).

Both nations have maintained high-level visits and emphasise on the need to further strengthen training and exercises between their military forces. Underpinning the significance of training in the India-Singapore relations, the Indian high commissioner to Singapore, Vijay Thakur Singh, remarked in April 2014, “The visit of the training squadron is significant because training is one of the most enduring and the strength of the defence cooperation between India and Singapore.” Additionally, India-Singapore “training interaction goes to the early days of establishment of our diplomatic relations which would complete 50 years next year”.

The armies of the two countries recently conducted ‘Bold Kurukshetra’ – a bilateral exercise underlining the “warm defence relationship”. Reflecting on the exercise, the commanding officer of the 42nd battalion of the Singapore armoured regiment, lieutenant colonel Ng Wei How, said, “The rich exchanges and joint training with the Indian army in Exercise Bold Kurukshetra 2014 have enhanced bilateral coordination and interoperability between the two armies.” (See “Singapore and Indian Armies Conduct Tenth Bilateral Armour Exercise”, MINDEF Singapore, March 2014.)

The Indian navy shares a strong association with the Royal Singapore Navy, and the two have, over the years, strengthened bilateral naval engagements through trainings and exercises. Other than carrying out the annual SIMBEX, the navies also carry out passing exercises (PASSEX) and participate in multilateral exercises such as MILAN. Underlining the important role that the navies of the two countries have played in strengthening the relationship, Anil Wadhwa, secretary, east, ministry of external affairs, noted, “We will continue to strengthen our engagement for maritime security, for ensuring freedom of navigation, for countering marine piracy, for coordinating responses to natural disasters and for peaceful settlement of maritime disputes in accordance with international law.” (See Anil Wadhwa, ‘Remarks by Secretary (East) at the Round Table on India-Singapore Relations’, MEA, March 14, 2014.)

Singapore has desired a greater Indian presence in the region. With the increasing tensions in the South China Sea (SCS), the ASEAN nations too now seek a greater Indian role in the region to balance an assertive China. While Beijing is wary of a growing Indian presence in those waters, it must be noted that the Indian navy has been making forays into the SCS since the early 2000s and engaging with the Royal Singapore Navy. India has often sent its vessels to southeast Asia and the SCS, deploying it for presence-cum-surveillance missions in the Malacca Strait, Sunda Strait and the South China Sea during May 2003.

As the two nations celebrate 50 years of relationship the coming year, New Delhi should now explore trilateral engagements in the region with Singapore and other friendly countries. 

As the Look East policy gains more salience with the rapidly changing geopolitical dynamics in the region, Singapore’s strategic importance for India will only grow. The question is whether India has the political will to achieve its strategic interests in the East. Given the increasing regional security tensions, New Delhi must be willing to play the role of a regional power, helping structure the emerging regional security architecture.

India is also fast emerging as the swing state between growing China-US power rivalry in the Indo-Pacific. Southeast Asian nations are showing great interest in Indian engagement with the region and have welcomed New Delhi’s presence amid the ongoing turmoil. New Delhi must draw on the strength of its existing bilateral relationship with Singapore to pursue other strategic interests in the region.

To what extent India can leverage its defence cooperation with the southeast Asian nations in furthering its regional strategic interests is yet to be seen. However, India should now think beyond ASEAN and engage with other nations more at a bilateral level on areas of common interests. India’s strategy in southeast Asia is evolving with the changing geopolitical undercurrents and Singapore may once again show the way for New Delhi in its renewed engagement with southeast Asia.

Yhome is a fellow and Baruah is a junior fellow with the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

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