Security and Access to Seas and Airspace

MP Dennis Tan

Mr Dennis Tan Lip Fong (Hougang): Mr Chairman, the recent incursion of an alleged PRC surveillance balloon into US airspace and its subsequent shoot down by the US military underscore growing friction between Washington and Beijing. This comes after the large-scale PLA military exercises bracketing Taiwan following the then US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei. These actions follow increasing PRC military activity in the East and South China Seas and near Taiwan in recent times, to which other militaries, including those of the United States, are mounting their own activities in response.

The Prime Minister, and more recently the Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister, have noted rising tensions between the United States and the PRC, which play out over a range of issues and wide swathes of territory. Manila recently pointed to the PLA Navy using lasers on the Philippine Navy vessel in the disputed South China Seas waters, supposedly blinding crew on the bridge temporarily.

These incidences and growing cleavages do not have anything directly to do with Singapore, at least for the moment. However, they could well affect Singapore and our interest in significant and potentially negative ways. I have little doubt that our professional foreign service officers at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are working very hard to encourage some amicable solutions and searching for means to mitigate risks for Singapore.

Through careful diplomacy in the event tensions should further escalate, this reinforces efforts to support international law and accepted rules of the road that have facilitated Singapore’s prosperity, safety and stability for so long.

Nonetheless, I am mindful of the very real possibility that diplomacy law and institutions sometimes may not be enough.

As a commerce-dependent island, Singapore needs open use of sea lanes, submarine cables and air routes that link us to partners in all of East Asia, across Southeast Asia, South Asia and points West. These could potentially be in jeopardy in the event of a major contingency involving the United States, the PRC and others that may occur around our region. Such an event could also spell political and military pressure on Singapore to provide or deny access to one party involved in a crisis or another in addition to broader disruption. This could also affect trade and communication and even the import of food and energy, not to mention safe passage for the shipping trade and maritime traffic passing through the straits of Singapore going both east and westwards, to near and far shores for which we are so heavily dependent on and possibly also civilian and commercial air traffic in the region. This may prove consequential for not just Singapore’s prosperity, but possibly even stability and survival.

Such pressure and disruption may take physical even kinetic form and not just be limited to information, cyberspace and political influence.

I would like to ask for an update on the efforts of MINDEF and the SAF in building the capacity to withstand military pressure and coercion from actors with significant capabilities and safeguard Singapore’s critical access to the air and sea in the event of an emergency, particularly in view of the tensions in the South China Sea and between different countries in the Asia Pacific region. What is being done to enhance such capacity in recent times, noting that much of Singapore investment in our professional military and national service has historically focused on the Army? Although I am greatly encouraged by the recent announcement of the appointment of our first Chief of Defence Force from the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN).

Apart from capacity, I would like to ask what preparations are in place to potentially sustain operations at longer distances from our shores. This may be important if we wish to prevent and perhaps minimise any dangers to Singapore and Singaporeans in the event of some major emergency in our region. Some people may well, see such concern as unnecessarily alarmist or dismiss them as remote and unrealistic. But as a nation, we must be prepared and vigilant for issues that may be looming to avoid any unwanted surprises, especially in these uncertain times.

Ministry of Defence
24 February 2023

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