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China military keeping tabs on US Poseidon deployment in Singapore

SINGAPORE — China’s military is closely watching an agreement between the United States and Singapore to ­deploy the US P-8 Poseidon surveillance plane to the city state and hopes the move does not harm regional stability, said the ­Defence Ministry. “We are paying close attention to how the relevant situation develops, and hope ­bilateral defence cooperation between the relevant countries is beneficial to ­regional peace and stability and not the opposite,” said the Ministry in a brief statement.

A U.S. Navy P8 Poseidon aircraft at Perth International Airport March 31, 2014. Reuters file photo

A U.S. Navy P8 Poseidon aircraft at Perth International Airport March 31, 2014. Reuters file photo

SINGAPORE — China’s military is closely watching an agreement between the United States and Singapore to ­deploy the US P-8 Poseidon surveillance plane to the city state and hopes the move does not harm regional stability, said the ­Defence Ministry. “We are paying close attention to how the relevant situation develops, and hope ­bilateral defence cooperation between the relevant countries is beneficial to ­regional peace and stability and not the opposite,” said the Ministry in a brief statement.

The Foreign Ministry of China, which is at odds with Washington over Beijing’s reclamation activities in the South China Sea, said the ­deployment was aimed at militarising the region and was detrimental to ­regional peace. However, analysts ­TODAY spoke with noted that the move is ­unlikely to significantly affect US-China or Singapore-China ties.

In a joint statement after a meeting this week in Washington, US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Singa­pore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen welcomed the inaugural deployment of the aircraft in Singapore from Dec 7 to 14. A US defence official has said further deployments in Singapore could be expected.

The move comes amid heightened tensions in the South China Sea, with China claiming most of the energy-rich stretch, through which more than US$5 trillion (S$7 trillion) of maritime trade passes each year. The Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan have overlapping claims. Washington has criticised Beijing’s building of artificial islands in the South China Sea’s disputed Spratly archipelago, and has recently conducted sea and air patrols near them.

Ms Angela Poh, a researcher on China’s foreign and security policy at S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said the latest P-8 deployment is another high signature move by the US — following its recent freedom of navigation operations — to ­indicate that it would not allow China to unilaterally change the status quo in the South China Sea.

Professor Zhang Baohui, a political science professor at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University, agreed.

“This is vital for US primacy. If other countries lose confidence in Washington’s ability and willingness to protect them, US primacy will collapse,” he said, adding that the US move was unlikely to stop China from its island-building activities.

Analysts warn that the net result could be an escalation of tensions in the disputed waters.

“China considers the deployment as an affront to its sovereignty, and will thus be compelled to respond to what Beijing sees as acts of provocation by the US. Neither party could back down without damaging their credibility,” said Dr Tang Siew Mun, head of the ASEAN Studies Centre at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

Ms Poh described the tussle as “a very fine balancing game”. “While proceeding with these high-level moves and rhetoric, both the US and China will try their very best to avoid having tensions over the South China Sea spiral out of control,” said Ms Poh, who noted that Beijing and Washington would also not want to let these developments affect bilateral ties.

Similarly, Sino-Singapore ties are unlikely to be affected.

“Singapore just did a big favour to China by hosting the Xi-Ma meeting. So the P-8 decision should not harm the relationship in major ways,” said Prof Zhang, referring to the historic meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou in Singapore last month."

Agreeing, Dr Tang added that Singapore-China ties are robust and multifaceted, and there is no reason for China to change this because of the P8 deployment.  “Similarly, the US should not cast a suspicious eye on Singapore and other Southeast Asian countries that had improved their security ties with China in the last few years.” 

The US already operates P-8s from Japan and the Philippines, and has conducted surveillance flights from Malaysia and experts note that Singapore’s participation in the deployment is part of the country’s long-term engagement with the US. 

“Singapore’s agreement to host the P-8 should not be seen solely in the context of heightening tensions in the South China Sea,” said Ms Poh, who noted that while Singapore is not a treaty ally of the US, it has a longstanding Memorandum of Understanding with the US established in 1990, and a Strategic Framework Agreement established in 2005. 

“Singapore’s relationship with the US has therefore been very strong for many decades. The rotational deployment of the US’s littoral combat ships to Singapore, as well as Singapore’s most recent agreement to host the US’s P-8, should therefore be viewed in this context,” she added.

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