Amidst the media buzz, the recent announcement by Washington to fly P-8 maritime surveillance flights out of Singapore needs to be viewed in perspective.
There has been quite a bit of media buzz over the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (DCA) inked just recently between Singapore and the United States. Even though the joint statement promulgated by both countries’ defense chiefs contains numerous provisions for enhanced defense linkages, the spotlight seems to be focused on the inaugural deployment of U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft to Singapore on December 7-14.
In fact, American military planes have made rotational deployments to Singapore since the early 1990s, for instance from the latter’s Paya Lebar Airbase. I once lived in a high-rise apartment — typical of those that characterize this small, heavily-urbanized island city-state — that gave quite a good view of the airstrip. The distinctive shapes and livery of U.S. military transport and tanker planes parked on the apron, at times partially concealed or taxiing on the flight line in full view, were hard to miss.
The reason why this new deployment garnered so much attention is because the platform in question is none other than a P-8 Poseidon. This is the case even though the P-8 is actually not a newcomer to Singaporean skies; it was tested back in August 2014 during joint training drills with the Singapore Armed Forces. The crux of the issue is that, just like the ubiquitous UH-1 “Huey” helicopter being the symbol of the Vietnam War, the P-8 has gained analogous status over the South China Sea following a number of aerial incidents with Chinese forces. Therefore, one almost instinctively links the plane to the South China Sea rationale.
P-8 Synonymous with the South China Sea?
However, as one indulges in the recent tensions arising in those waters, it becomes easy to overlook the fact that the P-8 is designed as a multi-mission aircraft designed for a wide variety of tasks: surface surveillance, over-the-horizon missile targeting for friendly combat units, search-and-rescue, electronic intelligence-gathering, anti-submarine warfare, and so forth. In other words, this plane can be employed for a whole of spectrum of peacetime and wartime missions.
The P-8’s role in hunting for Chinese submarines stationed on Hainan Island and in challenging Beijing’s South China Sea claims has been often talked about. Less discussed about is the aircraft’s value in promoting regional maritime domain awareness against non-state threats such as pirates. Despite the spate of military modernization efforts undertaken by many Southeast Asian governments, the one capability area which still suffers from relative neglect is aerial platforms, equivalent to the P-8 or a less capable type, for maritime surveillance. This category of capability has for long been relegated to lower priority in favor of high-powered, “big ticket” purchases such as combat vessels and multi-role fighter jets. Southeast Asia is plagued by an uneven spread, in terms of quantity and quality, of maritime patrol aircraft.
Only in the more recent years, Indonesia began to induct newer maritime patrol aircraft. Malaysia and Singapore maintain small fleets of such planes since the 1990s, without concrete new replacements plans at present. Vietnam is a newcomer, but its Canadian-built amphibian planes are handicapped by short range and limited payload. As such, the P-8 flights ought to be a welcome addition to help fill regional shortfalls, since data gathered by the plane can be shared with Southeast Asian authorities.
And it is not just data pertaining to the South China Sea disputes, but those useful in deterring and mitigating piratical and armed robbery attacks against ships in Southeast Asian waters where a number of ship hijacks had been reported. The navies of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the U.S. held an inaugural Roundtable Staff Talks back in May 2015 to discuss about, amongst other things, information-sharing to promote maritime domain awareness in part targeted at this development. This P-8 deployment can be deemed one of the natural outcomes of the talks and notably the following Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative.
A Careful Balance of Interests
Of course, it will be entirely misleading to claim that this P-8 deployment is totally unrelated to the South China Sea tensions. Staging such sorties out of Singapore does provide an operational advantage for U.S. Navy surveillance efforts over the disputed waters. Singapore, as a non-claimant, is also a politically less-sensitive partner of choice compared to those who are parties to the disputes; for example, Malaysia.
Furthermore, it is apparent that Singapore seeks to manage external perceptions of this deployment, amongst other initiatives covered in the new agreement. In this connection, the joint statement specifically mentioned that the deployment as falling “under the ambit” of the two previous pacts — the 1990 Memorandum of Understanding and 2005 Strategic Framework Agreement. This is plausibly a deliberate wording aimed at mollifying any misinterpretation of this deployment as signifying a radical change in the nature of existing bilateral defense relations. To be sure, the Enhanced DCA is not, and never will be, an instrument of formal military alliance.
This essentially reflects Singapore’s longstanding foreign policy stance; on the one hand promoting its enduring security partnership with Washington in a bid to further entrench the latter’s security commitments to this region; while taking care not to unnecessarily “rock the boat” by provoking a vigorous Chinese response on the other. The multi-functional nature of the P-8 enables an inherently ambiguous strategic intent, thereby providing greater flexibility of options for both the U.S. and Singapore governments. Allowing B-52 strategic bomber flights, however, will be a Rubicon Singapore does not wish to cross because of their inherently offensive functions. By comparison, P-8 sorties may lend to better “escalation-control”.
Predictable Chinese Behavioral Pattern?
But what can be said of China’s response? This is a question that ought to be of interest given recent South China Sea tensions. Beijing did criticize this latest move by Washington, as it almost usually did whenever Pentagon announced or conducted new deployments to the region. Nonetheless, it will still exercise caution. Having already inked the Memorandum of Understanding in November 2014 and its Supplement in September this year with the U.S. to govern rules of behavior for safety of aerial and maritime encounters, conducting aggressive military counter-surveillance against the P-8 flights will be to China’s detriment.
It can be seen that in February, Beijing did not particularly react to Washington’s decision on rotational deployment of four Littoral Combat Ships to Singapore. In May, Chinese forces garrisoned in the disputed waters issued repeated warnings to a P-8 monitoring Beijing’s land reclamation activities but did not engage. The same month, Chinese warships maintained a safe distance to USS Fort Worth conducting its maiden South China Sea patrol. This was repeated during the passage of USS Lassen in October. Beijing will likely exhibit the same behavioral pattern.
What this means is that besides making diplomatic representations and intensifying military counter-surveillance efforts, Beijing could only watch the sorties being flown out of Singapore and fume, yet desisting from drastic countermeasures involving use of force. Singapore will not suffer from retribution for this latest move. Neither will Beijing attempt to manipulate, overtly or behind the scenes, Singapore’s longstanding security ties with Washington since that may potentially backfire on itself. After all, Beijing counts on Singapore’s present capacity as coordinator of ASEAN-China relations to improve its image in Southeast Asia following the recent South China Sea spats.
However, there is a potential “wild card” one still needs to recognize. Given the envisaged increase in P-8 flights, a Chinese air defense identification zone over the South China Sea, similar to the one established in November 2013 over the East China Sea, now inches closer — even if slightly — towards the reality. Once all new airstrips Beijing is currently building in the disputed waters turn operational, it may just be a matter of time and its political will.