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Locating Singapore in India’s Strategic Radar

Rahul Mishra was Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • April 01, 2010

    The week ending 28 March 2010 was dominated by Singapore in terms of India’s politico-military and cultural diplomacy moves. It started with Minister for External Affairs S.M. Krishna’s visit to Singapore and ended with the armies of the two countries conducting a joint military exercise codenamed ‘Bold Kurukshetra’ in Madhya Pradesh. Krishna’s two-day visit was to “discuss ways of enhancing bilateral relationship in all spheres to a higher level.” During this visit, his first since appointment as Minister for External Affairs, Krishna met Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew as well as other leaders. He also visited the Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies and applauded the faculty there for its outstanding academic contribution to strengthening cultural linkages between India and Southeast Asia. He also updated the media on developments regarding the proposed Nalanda University in India. The visit underscores the cultural linkages India shares with Singapore.

    Krishna’s visit was complimented in the politico-military sphere by the holding of the two-day annual joint armour exercise at the Babina Field Firing Range in Madhya Pradesh. The exercise was aimed at ‘validating inter-operability between the two forces’. This was the sixth in the ‘Bold Kurukshetra Series’ between the two armed forces. Among other things, the exercise involved the Singapore Armed Forces’ BIONIX Infantry Fighting Vehicle and BRONCO All-Terrain Tracked Carrier as well as BMP-2 Infantry Fighting Vehicle and T-72 Main Battle Tank of the Indian Army. The exercise also included professional exchange between the two armies in the form of getting used to each other’s equipment and sand-model exercises.

    These events indicate the deep seated relationship between India and Singapore as well as the strategic significance Singapore commands in India’s Look East Policy. The events of the last week have just added to half a century old cordial relations between the two countries. For instance, Singapore was the first country to support India in the 1965 War with Pakistan. Moreover, when Britain shut its bases in Singapore, “Lee Kuan Yew visited India to persuade New Delhi to evince greater interest in Southeast Asia. He wanted India to make use of the naval and dockyard facilities for building and repairing ships.”

    When in 1992, under the visionary leadership of P.V. Narsimha Rao, India heralded its ‘Look East Policy’, the place where the first such meeting was held was Singapore. Since then, the policy has formed the cornerstone of India’s Southeast Asian foreign (economic) policy, with Singapore occupying a central position.1 In 1992, India became a sectoral dialogue partner of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations). Singapore became a key role player in bringing India and ASEAN member countries together at the institutional level. It was also the country-coordinator for India when India became a sectoral dialogue partner of ASEAN. It was Singapore again that paved the way for India joining the ASEAN Regional Forum. India and Singapore also inked a defence co-operation agreement in 2003 which is the founding stone of regular joint military exercises the two countries carry out. Additionally, Singapore is the first country in the world with which India signed the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation agreement in June 2005, which served to open new avenues for business and trading communities of the two countries.

    Taking cue from the recent India-Singapore success story, it could be argued that India’s ‘natural Southeast Asian partner’ still holds the potential to serve as the ‘window to the East Asian region’. Singapore has, for a long time, been considered best for playing such a role. Sadly, not much has been done to make the best use of Singapore’s good offices in boosting ties with other friendly Southeast Asian countries. For instance, India is yet to find a mechanism to institute a tri-lateral dialogue involving India, Singapore and possibly Vietnam on defence and security issues, to begin with. India has robust defence relations with Vietnam and Singapore, individually. India has concluded a long term training arrangement with Singapore, while Singapore has been searching for Defence R&D prospects in India. Vietnam too has been a beneficiary of India’s defence assistance. At the same time, Singapore and Vietnam also have evolved strong defence relations after shedding the baggage of the Cold War. In 2009, they signed an Agreement on National Defence Cooperation (DCA). The DCA serves as a framework for both countries to formalise existing interactions and promote new areas of cooperation. Current interactions include exchange of visits, cross-attendance of training courses, as well as an annual policy dialogue which aims to bring together key officials from the two defence establishments to exchange views on defence and security issues of mutual interest.2

    China’s rise in Asia will have a significant impact on countries in the continent and one cannot deny the possibility of China becoming hegemonic in future. This, in the long run, could become a uniting factor for India and Southeast Asian countries. While India and Vietnam had fought wars with China in the past, Singapore remains wary of Chinese intentions on territorial matters and on the Taiwan issue.

    India at present seems content with what it has got from the ‘Look East Policy’, which no doubt is India’s most successful policy move so far in the post-Cold War era. This, however, should have prompted India to reach out to the East Asian region more vigorously. Unfortunately, apart from engaging the region through institutional arrangements such as ARF, ASEAN+3 and FTA, India has sought to engage the countries of the region only through bilateral arrangements. India’s arrangements such as those with Indonesia, Vietnam and Singapore do not constitute a complete picture of its long term strategic vision in East Asia and at best look like mutually exclusive, isolated components.

    It is imperative that India engages Singapore in a more robust manner so as to enable the forging of deeper and more broad-based friendships in the Southeast Asian region through Singapore’s good offices. This is something India has to work towards to enable a key role for itself as a rising power in the twenty-first century.

    • 1. Amitendu Palit, India’s Economic Engagement with Southeast Asia: Progress and Challenges, ISAS Working Paper No. 60, Institute of South Asian Studies, 2009, p. 1. Quoted in The Next Stage of Singapore-India Relations: Possibilities and Prospects, Sinderpal Singh and Syeda Sana Rahman, ISAS Working Paper No. 91, 24 September 2009
    • 2. For details, see “Fact Sheet: Singapore - Vietnam Defence Cooperation Agreement,”