Forget Size, Think Proximity
Rustic Bullsbrook is just 40 kilometers from Perth. It’s so close to the Western Australian capital most drivers keep toeing the gas to tourist temptations further north.
Those who stop for a snack and chat encounter a curious mix for a slow country town. Among the bulky farmers and sun-bleached orchardists are trim Asian men, unobtrusive, speaking perfect English. Quiet, friendly guys.
Only when airborne do they let rip in Pilatus PC 9 turboprops, darting and diving across the Stirling Range. For behind the town is the Pearce Air Force Base where Top Guns learn their trade. This is a high security defence establishment, but not all inside are Australians.
The rest are Singaporeans enjoying freedom unavailable in the skies of their homeland hamburgered between Indonesia and Malaysia. The pilots’ presence isn’t secret, but rarely paraded. The issue of foreign military on sovereign soil, often raised in the Philippines and Japan, is a ho-hum.
For Australia has an asset the city state lacks - space to exercise the island’s military muscle. The little red dot has economic clout, strategic influence and something its big near neighbor needs – a strong and reliable presence in Asia and a society which shares its Anglosphere principles.
These include respect for the rule of law, stable government, a similar outlook on the world and a corruption-free, well-educated society with few religious hang-ups.
The sauce on the patty is English as the standard language and a shared history as former British colonies. These factors lure Westerners prepared to put efficiency, discipline and cleanliness above free expression and press independence in a state long run by one party.
The unspoken conclusion is that these values are not shared by others in the region, which logically infers they are perceived as unstable and unreliable.
PM Lee Hsien Loong thinks his country and Australia are ‘politically like-minded, strategically aligned and economically complementary’. He’s also talked of ‘a special warmth in the relationship because of our temperaments and national ethos, because of our preference to be direct and straight and candid and to the point, and informal.’
This long-standing marriage of convenience is being further consummated. More than 5,000 kilometers north east of Bullsbrook, 14,000 Singaporean military personnel will be using facilities at tropical Shoalwater Bay in North Queensland paid for by the visitors.
The 25-year AUD $2.25 billion investment labelled ‘an enhanced defence training agreement’ was announced just before PM Malcolm Turnbull called the Federal Election for 2 July. It wouldn’t have given his Liberal Party much electoral advantage – Australia’s two major parties tend to agree on defence policy.
Australia was first to recognise independent Singapore in 1965. It has ‘Southeast Asia’s most professional and well-equipped armed forces by some order of magnitude’ according to Dr Euan Graham (no relation).
He’s just published a paper for the Sydney-based Lowy Institute where he directs the International Security Program, stamping Singapore as Australia’s ‘natural peer partner’:
Although not always evident to Australians, the stark fact is that Australia needs Southeast Asia more than Southeast Asia needs Australia. Singapore is the exception to this rule, because of its clearly defined, long-term defence interests in the country.
Originally titled Size isn’t Everything but now The Lion and the Kangaroo (Merlion would have been more apt), the paper details the 719 square kilometer island’s security strategy. With only 5.2 million residents, a causeway to Malaysia (31 million) and just 45 minutes by ferry from Indonesia (250 million) it’s hardly surprising the nation keeps glancing over its shoulders.
Indonesia celebrates its military past with Heroes’ Day on 10 November when revolutionaries confronted returning Dutch colonialists; Singapore’s Total Defence Day (15 February) recalls the 1942 British surrender to Japanese troops.
Writes Graham: ‘A pointed reminder…not only of potential external threats, but also of the dangers of leaving the job to others’.
So Singapore ‘cultivates public and private partners omni-directionally, encouraging as many as possible to develop a stake in the city state’s security and prosperity’. Apart from the US it has a network of defence relations with 13 countries as diverse as Brunei and Israel.
Graham labels Singapore and Australia as ‘odd men out’ in the region, feeling ‘insecure in their strategic environments’:
The relationship may not be permanently crisis bound, in the basic sense that the two states no longer view each other as a direct security threat, a major advance from the mutual suspicions of the past. At the same time, the bilateral relationship consistently fails to realise its potential, despite periodic hopes placed in it from Canberra.’
It’s an expansion of the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP). This includes visa and trade benefits, nudging the relationship closer to that between Australia and New Zealand where relaxed entry and residence rules apply.
Graham calls the CSP a ‘natural evolution of strategic convergence’. It was signed last year before PM Tony Abbott was deposed by Turnbull. Despite his pre-election promise to be ‘more Jakarta and less Geneva’ we now know his real interest was an hour’s flight north - ‘possibly the most pro-Singaporean PM in Australian history.’
The Singaporeans aren’t the only foreign military Down Under. By next year 2,500 marines will be rotated through Darwin as part of the US Government’s Asia-Pacific policy. The Northern Territory port is 830 kilometers from Kupang.
Singapore also has strategic value to the US. Graham claims it ‘probably outstrips’ Washington’s treaty-based alliances with the Philippines and Thailand. This involvement in Singapore is set to expand with the deployment of combat craft and multi-mission aircraft.
Should any of these moves concern Indonesia? The Republic was allegedly not told in advance of the 2011 Darwin deal, arousing theories from paranoid politicians about the US having eyes on West Papua’s mineral resources. Others saw it as a move to block China’s interests in the area, which is closer to the truth.
Then President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono didn’t detect any insult so the issue had a limited shelf life. But with the new President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo there’s been a surge of nationalism, and prickliness about foreign influences.
Indonesia has maritime security deals with Singapore and Malaysia, a ‘defence cooperation agreement’ with Australia, and a defence pact with Japan signed last year. ASEAN as a self-styled ‘security community’ is more aspiration than action, sharing little other than a region.
Terms like ‘pact’ and ‘agreement’ are slippery. They don’t necessarily mean that if one party gets thumped another will join to retaliate or do more than growl from afar.
Indonesia, a founding member of the 1961 Non Aligned Movement, has failed to lock in its security with other nations at any depth. Instead it relies on its immense size for protection and a standing military force of 386,000 plus 400,000 reservists and militiamen.
Singapore has 72,000 with 312,000 in reserve through universal male conscription, but is far better prepared.
European and US visitors are often surprised to see the site names carved on Australian war memorials are all located in other lands. There’s no equivalent of the Battle of Britain or Gettysburg – and that’s how Australia, with 58,000 full-time defence personnel plus 45,000 reservists sees the future – tackling conflict at a distance.
Indonesia under Jokowi not only aims to be self-sufficient in beef but also arms acquisition – a curious ambition as weapon industries in other nations are far more sophisticated and their products widely traded.
For example, a French company has just won an AUD$50 billion contract to build 12 new submarines for Australia. Even China imports weapons, planes from Russia and helicopters from France.
Indonesia makes its own Pindad assault weapons under licence from Belgium, but also uses American M16s. If Indonesia goes it alone with separate arms standards its military will find it even harder to work with allies.
That aside the Australian Defence White Paper published this year calls for closer defence relationships with Indonesia; so far cooperation has largely focussed on counter terrorism, humanitarian work and disaster relief.
The ADWP predicts that Indonesia will eventually become the largest defence spender in Southeast Asia. Before that happens the Republic needs to confront its critical domestic problems of poverty, inequality, corruption and infrastructure.
There’s no point in having sophisticated weaponry if the roads, ports and airports are too clogged, damaged and inadequate to cope with rapid military movements.
Then there’s the question of cash. Indonesia is trying to reform its tax system with revenues falling far short of predictions. Two years after schedule Indonesia has just released its own White Paper on Defence. This says spending will be held at one per cent of GDP. Singapore’s is 3.3, Australia’s just under two.
As Indonesia struggles with the legacy of decades of misrule, Singapore rushes ahead. But Graham warns that:
While Singapore in some senses represents Asia in microcosm, Australians need to be alert to the trap of perceiving it as a proxy for the region.
The CSP is not an alternative to bilateral engagement with Indonesia, or other key ASEAN members. Nor would it be wise to cast Singapore in that light. But it can be an important source of strategic ballast and continuity for Australia.
So Singaporeans in uniform will be an even more regular sight in Bullsbrook and now Shoalwater Bay.
(First published in Strategic Review 9 June 2018. See:http://www.sr-indonesia.com/web-exclusives/view/forget-size-think-proximity)