U.S. surveillance planes will now fly from Singaporean territory on their way to monitor Chinese land reclamation projects in the South China Sea.

Singapore has agreed to a new defense agreement due to China’s aggressive stance on maritime territorial claims in the South China Sea, and is one of a number of nations strengthening links with Washington in the face of assertive actions from Beijing, writes Dan De Luce for Foreign Policy.

China vs. U.S. South China Sea Japan Singapore
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Singapore welcomes Poseidon surveillance flights

U.S. Navy Poseidon surveillance planes will now fly from airfields in Singapore, increasing Washington’s capabilities in the disputed South China Sea. Singapore’s defense minister, Ng Eng Hen, is set to sign the cooperation agreement during a visit to Washington. He is scheduled to meet U.S. counterpart Ash Carter for talks on Monday.

“They will sign an enhanced defense cooperation agreement that will lay the framework for closer cooperation on a number of areas, including humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, countering piracy and transnational terrorism, and cyber defense,” said a Pentagon official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The move is likely to be met with opposition from China, which has previously warned U.S. airplanes and ships away from the area. U.S. assets have only flown in areas that are defined as international waters and airspace by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which China has signed, but U.S. activities are a major source of tension.

Territorial disputes in South China Sea cause tensions in Asia-Pacific

U.S. surveillance flights already fly from Japan and the Philippines, while Malaysia has also offered its airbases for use. More of this data is being shared with Asian allies as concerns grow over China’s intentions in the region.

The South China Sea is subject to competing claims from various nations, although China believes that nearly the whole sea should fall under its control. Beijing has invested in a massive island building program, dredging material and constructing an air base and other installations on top of previously submerged reefs.

The new facilities can handle every aircraft possessed by the Chinese air force, and deep water ports can receive large ships. In total over 3,000 acres of land have been reclaimed in under two years. The program has provoked fears of Chinese expansionism among rival claimants.

Singapore holds influence in regional geopolitics

Singapore may boast a population of just 6 million but it has a vibrant economy and has an important role to play in regional geopolitics. While trade with China remains strong, Singapore has also cultivated increasingly important links with the U.S. military.

U.S. Navy Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) have previously been deployed to Singapore for temporary stints, and the country hosts a logistics command unit. Singapore has been investing heavily in its own armed forces, sinking billions of dollars into new weapons and fighter jets. Around 20% of GDP is spent on defense, and Singapore is careful not to buy equipment from China or Russia.

In addition Singapore’s Changi Naval Base is the only regional port that could receive a U.S. aircraft carrier. Closer cooperation with the U.S. has inspired neighboring countries to follow a similar course, and the U.S. provides a counterweight to China. There is potential for the South China Sea to be a source of conflict for the foreseeable future, and Singapore appears to have chosen its side.