Forces: Singapore Confronts China


August 30, 2021: Singapore recently took part in a very visible confrontation with China. In late July there was a major international FONOP (freedom of navigation operations) in the South China Sea to confirm international access and defy Chinese claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea and control over who enters these waters. For a decade now there has been a Chinese campaign of bullying other nations to gain exclusive control of these resources. In 2016 an international court ruled against China in that matter. China refused to recognize the court ruling and claims it’s interpretation of international law and South China Sea supersedes whatever the rest of the world may think.

The late July FONOP was carried out by a carrier task force led by the new British carrier Queen Elizabeth, accompanied by seven other ships, including an American destroyer and frigates from the Netherlands, Britain and Singapore. There were also two other Singapore Navy ships; an amphibious assault vessel and an offshore patrol vessel. The carrier was also accompanied by a British SSN (Nuclear Attack sub) but the status of that vessel is rarely discussed because it is submerged nearly all the time.

This was the first time the Singapore Navy had operated with the Queen Elizabeth and won’t be the last. Singapore is a small island city-state but maintains one of the most powerful military forces in the region. The Singapore Navy has only 7,000 personnel and 36 ships but the sailors and officers are well trained and the ships, four subs and 30 surface warships, are modern and regularly updated or replaced. For example, the four existing Swedish submarines are being replaced by four new German designs that feature AIP (Air Independent Propulsion) which allows these boats to remain submerged for over a week at a time. Six new frigates are based on a French design with the first one built in France and the others in Singapore. There are six corvettes from Germany that are due to be replaced within the next decade by ships built in Singapore. There are four amphibious warfare ships, all built in Singapore. There are four mine warfare ships plus a submarine rescue ship and two fast patrol boats. The navy also operates half a dozen USVs (Unmanned Surface Vessels) for harbor and coastal patrol duties. The navy also has seven helicopters for operating from the frigates and some ship-based UAVs.

Singapore is an island at the southern end of the Malay Peninsula. It was part of Malaysia for six years, but had the option to become independent and did so in 1965. Singapore currently has the eighth highest per-capita income in the world. Current population is 5.6 million and 75 percent are ethnic Chinese. It is next to the Straits of Malacca, the most heavily used shipping channel in the world and vital to the Chinese economy. Singapore officially recognizes mainland China diplomatically but continues to discreetly work with Taiwan. Despite having a population that is mostly Chinese, one of the four official languages is English and nearly all residents speak it. More people speak English at home than Chinese. From the beginning Singapore sought to position itself as a multi-ethnic trading nation and not another Hong Kong or Taiwan. China has gone along with that so far, but Singapore knows that could change because China considers all “overseas Chinese”, no matter what their citizenship and loyalties, still Chinese and subject to Chinese law.

That is one of the reasons Singapore spends about five percent of GDP on its armed forces, which consists of 72,000 active-duty personnel. Conscription (22-24 months of service) is used to enable Singapore to maintain a reserve force of over a million men with military training and able to be mobilized and armed in the event of a national emergency. Sort of like Switzerland but with a navy. The growing Chinese navy is seen as a threat to Singapore and Chinese claims on the South China Sea confirms this.


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