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US, S'pore set to take ties to new heights

WASHINGTON, DC — Marking half a century of strong diplomatic relations, the United States and Singapore on Wednesday (Aug 3) laid out an ambitious vision for future bilateral cooperation in a wide spectrum of areas across defence, cybersecurity, innovation, trade and people-to-people exchanges.

President Barack Obama with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the state dinner at the White House on Wednesday (Aug 3). A joint statement released earlier in the day revealed plans for future collaborations in areas ranging from trade and defence to climate change. Photo: AFP

President Barack Obama with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the state dinner at the White House on Wednesday (Aug 3). A joint statement released earlier in the day revealed plans for future collaborations in areas ranging from trade and defence to climate change. Photo: AFP

WASHINGTON, DC — Marking half a century of strong diplomatic relations, the United States and Singapore on Wednesday (Aug 3) laid out an ambitious vision for future bilateral cooperation in a wide spectrum of areas across defence, cybersecurity, innovation, trade and people-to-people exchanges.

In a comprehensive joint statement issued after US President Barack Obama held talks with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, both countries revealed they are exploring the possibility of the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) conducting training on the US territory of Guam in the Western Pacific.

It was the standout development in the 10-page document that included pledges to jointly tackle climate change and global terrorism, as well as uphold freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. “The two countries have built a strong relationship anchored by robust economic cooperation, security and defence cooperation, and enduring people-to-people ties,” said the statement.

“Beyond bilateral cooperation, the two countries have worked as close partners to build a rules-based economic and security order for the Asia-Pacific and to address challenges on the global stage, including economic prosperity, climate change, terrorism, transnational crime, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”

The joint statement is the most substantive outcome of Mr Lee’s official visit this week to the US to commemorate the 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties between the two strategic partners. 

It also came on a hectic day packed with official meetings and events that culminated in the highlight of the visit – a state banquet at the White House. 

On the possibility of SAF training on the US territory of Guam, the statement gave few details but said both countries were eyeing “a potential long-term training detachment” for the Singapore Air Force. 

Guam, a US island territory strategically located in the Western Pacific, has long been a station for passing jets and submarines. 

Mr Obama, according to the statement, also welcomed Singapore’s continued interest in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. 

The Republic has been mulling over the purchase of the F-35 an all-weather stealth multirole fighter – as it looks to enhance its long term capability to protect Singapore’s airspace.

“As I told the Prime Minister, we welcome Singapore’s interest in purchasing the F-35 aircraft, and we’ll also explore the possibility of Singaporean troops training on Guam,” Mr Obama said during a joint press conference with Mr Lee after their meeting. 

The South China Sea dispute was given an airing in the statement too, with both leaders reaffirming “the importance of maintaining regional peace and stability and upholding freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea”.

To reflect concerns of the digital age, cybersecurity emerged as a key new area for bilateral cooperation as both countries inked a new agreement to boost information sharing and joint initiatives on training and online security. 

“As two nations on the forefront of digital innovation, we recognise the growing threats of cyberattacks, and we’re going to continue to work to strengthen cybersecurity and to promote peaceful norms on how nations should operate in cyberspace,” said Mr Obama at the press conference. 

Another area of cooperation was on “Smart City” developments, where both sides will identify opportunities for research collaboration between the National Science Foundation and the Singaporean National Research Foundation, share best practices and facilitate exchanges for start-ups among others.

Addressing the issue of counterterrorism, both countries stressed the importance to enhance information sharing. Singapore and the US have co-invested US$30 million (S$40 million) under the 2006 Combating Terrorism Research and Development agreement to improve capabilities to combat terrorism. This has been extended for another 10 years, for investments up to US$100 million.

Mr Obama also welcomed Singapore’s commitment to continue existing contributions to the US-led international coalition’s fight against the Islamic State, as the Republic said it would now deploy medical support to Iraq.

To beef up people-to-people linkages, Singapore has launched an exchange scholarship to fund summer exchange programmes for 50 Singaporean and 50 US students over the course of the next five years.

“It’s fitting to mark this special occasion of our 50th anniversary that we are launching a scholarship for Singaporeans and Americans to enable undergraduates to do some exchanges in each other’s country and grow our young people closer together, and to get to know each other’s societies, cultures, strengths, and opportunities to cooperate together,” said Mr Lee.

Mr Lee arrived in the US on Sunday, when he met Singaporeans at a national day reception. This was followed by meetings the next day with US government and leaders. He and his wife, Madam Ho Ching, were officially welcomed by Mr and Mrs Obama in a stately ceremony at the White House on Tuesday morning. (US time), where in his brief welcome remarks Mr Obama described Singapore as a “rock solid” partner of the US and an “anchor” for the US presence in the Asia Pacific. This was followed by a meeting between the leaders at the Oval Office and the release of the joint statement. Both then held a joint press conference which was dominated by trade issues such as the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). 

Both leaders strongly reaffirmed the importance of ratifying the agreement by January next year, underlining how it would fundamentally shape the security and economic landscape of the region.

“(The TPP) is an integral component of America’s rebalance to Asia,” said Mr Lee. “Apart from the economic benefits — trade, market access, standard setting - it’s also vital from a strategic point of view and a strong signal of the US commitment to continue its deep engagement in the region.”

As Mr Lee was busy with bilateral talks with Mr Obama, Madam Ho attended a cultural event to highlight arts education at the National Gallery of Art with Mrs Michelle Obama. 

Wrapping up the packed schedule was a lavish state dinner at the White House, attended by government leaders and celebrities. It was the 12th state dinner Mr Obama hosted in his eight years as president, and his first for a South-east Asian leader.

Mr Lee will leave the US on Wednesday afternoon (US time) to return to Singapore.

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