A Chinese minesweeper is taking part in a military exercise with Singapore for the first time, a move that could signal greater attention in Beijing to the strategically important Strait of Malacca, according to a defence analyst.
The exercise also reflects Singapore’s efforts to chart a course between China and the United States as the two powers jostle for geopolitical influence, the analyst said.
The minesweeper, the Chibi, is one of two Chinese vessels taking part in “China-Singapore Exercise Maritime Cooperation 2023” – the other is the guided-missile frigate Yulin. Both are from the Southern Theatre Command of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
Singapore is sending its Formidable-class frigate RSS Intrepid and Bedok-class mine countermeasure vessel RSS Punggol, according to The Straits Times.
The exercise started on Friday and ends on Monday in what is the first maritime drill between the two countries since 2021.
Neither side said exactly where the exercises would take place.
Singapore’s Ministry of Defence said the drill with China underscored the “warm and friendly” defence relations between the two countries.
The ministry also said it was a part of regular bilateral and multilateral exercises with foreign navies to strengthen trust and cooperation.
Former PLA instructor Song Zhongping said the involvement of the minesweepers indicated the two countries wanted to work together to improve the security of the Malacca Strait, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
“The Malacca waterway is vital to China’s national interests, especially our energy security,” Song said.
“It is necessary for us to work with Singapore to maintain the security of the waterway and conduct exercises … to improve mine-sweeping abilities.”
More than 70 per cent of China’s oil imports go through the strait, which connects the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, and Beijing has long been concerned that the United States and other rivals could blockade the area in a conflict.
The joint exercise is starting just as the US and its southeast Asian ally, the Philippines, are ending their biggest combat drills in decades.
Manila has been moving closer to Washington, giving US forces access to four more military bases in the Philippines earlier this year.
One of those bases is just 400km (250 miles) from Taiwan, a self-ruled island Beijing vows to return to the mainland Chinese fold.
Song said the China-Singapore exercise was not a response to the US-Philippine one, but a clear message from Singapore that it would not choose sides in the Beijing- Washington rivalry.
“Trying to avoid getting involved in the conflict between China and the United States has become Singapore’s way of survival,” he said.
That strategy was apparent earlier this month when the US commander of the Pacific Air Forces, Kenneth Wilsbach, visited Singapore, a trip the city state said “underscores the excellent and long-standing defence relations between Singapore and the US”.
It was also in play in the Chinese city of Xian in November when China’s then-defence minister Wei Fenghe told his Singaporean counterpart Ng Eng Hen that he hoped the two militaries would strengthen high-level exchanges, joint exercises and multilateral security coordination.
After the exercise, the PLA Navy delegation will attend the maritime defence show Imdex Asia to be held in Singapore from Wednesday.
Source : SCMP