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Will Singapore Go to War?

Goh Jun Cheng

As a small city-state, Singapore faces inherent strategic vulnerabilities. Surrounded by larger neighbours, Singapore must navigate a precarious geopolitical environment. Some analysts have questioned if Singapore could get drawn into potential regional conflicts as tensions flare.

However, astute diplomacy and deterrence policies make overt warfare highly improbable for the prudent island nation.

This article examines Singapore’s defence posture and relationships to evaluate its war prospects in the 21st century.

Geopolitical Constraints of Size and Resources

Singapore lacks strategic depth as a 719 square kilometre island. With limited natural resources, it depends heavily on imported supplies, especially water and food from Malaysia. Its small population of 5.7 million citizens translates into a modest military manpower pool.

These physical limitations hinder Singapore’s ability to unilaterally wage or sustain a major conflict. Its exposed location also renders it inherently vulnerable to air and naval attacks. But skillful diplomacy balances these constraints by embedding Singapore within a network of international partnerships.

A Non-Belligerent Posture – Pragmatism not Pugilism

Central to Singapore’s strategic doctrine is non-belligerence. As then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew stated in 1967, “This is not a military state which has to seek glory through conquest and conquest through militarism.”

While maintaining formidable deterrent capabilities, Singapore adopts a strictly defensive posture focused on preventing war, not instigating offensives. Its foreign policy emphasisesneutrality and non-alignment to avoid entanglement in conflicts.

Singapore upholds international law to strengthen norms against interstate force. Such judicious pragmatism reduces its risk of belligerence.

Commitment to Regional Peace and Stability

Singapore also champions regional integration and multilateralism to reinforce Southeast Asia’s stability. It helped catalyse ASEAN and the ASEAN Regional Forum as platforms for preventing tensions and fostering cooperation.

Singapore supports mutually beneficial projects like the proposed Kra Canal cautiously to avoid escalating rivalries. However, its militarised reclamation of Pedra Branca Islands did strain ties with Malaysia temporarily. Overall, Singapore recognises that its prosperity and survival hinge on a stable regional order.

Robust Defence Partnerships and Deterrence

Notwithstanding its small size, Singapore fields one of the most advanced and capable militaries in Southeast Asia. It spends over 3% of GDP on defence sustained over decades. Sophisticated capabilities like stealth fighters, submarines, early warning aircraft and missile batteries bolster conventional deterrence.

Singapore also hosts the US Navy Logistics Group and rotational littoral combat ships – facilitating power projection into the contested South China Sea. Such partnerships augment its defence posture through cost-effective force multiplication. Interoperability with allies signals that Singapore is not isolated.

National Service and Societal Resilience

Singapore’s national service programme also psychologically prepares citizens to defend the nation. All male citizens serve a 22-month conscript stint upon turning 18. This not only enhances military readiness but also inculcates a sense of total defence across society.

Civil defence education similarly equips the populace to respond to crises resolutely. Singapore’s high levels of individual and community resilience significantly raise the costs and challenges of subjugating it through force. Social cohesion and psychological resolve thus strengthen its deterrence.

Prioritising Diplomacy to Pre-empt Conflicts

That said, Singapore still primarily banks on diplomacy, not weaponry, to safeguard its interests. It maintains cordial ties even with difficult neighbours like Malaysia through compromises like joint development of disputed maritime zones.

Singapore leaders openly voice concerns over issues like airspace disputes while proposing dialogue. Such frank yet tactful diplomacy aims to pre-emptively resolve friction points before they escalate uncontrollably. Even the water agreements with Malaysia were secured through deft statesmanship rather than coercion.

Restraint in Maritime Boundary Disputes

Despite competing territorial claims in the South China Sea, Singapore treads cautiously to avoid inflaming tensions. It calls for demilitarisation of disputed reclaimed islands through dialogue, not unilateral actions.

While expanding its navy to protect sea lines of communication, Singapore does not join military coalitions or freedom of navigation operations that could antagonise China. However, it also maintains partnerships to dissuade unilateral forceful changes to the status quo. This balanced approach reduces risks of uncontrolled escalations at sea.

Support for Rules-Based International Order

To discourage war, Singapore advocates for and upholds rules-based multilateralism governed by international law. It promotes the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and conduct of relations per established norms and principles.

Singapore’s diplomats consistently highlight that the right to existence is accorded equally to small states under international law. Adherence to rules-bound order by all countries remains the ultimate guarantor of Singapore’s survival.

Growth of Economic Interdependence

Expanding economic integration also makes war costlier for prospective aggressors against Singapore. Multinational companies have vast assets based in Singapore that would suffer severely if regional conflict erupts.

Financial markets and supply chains would be disrupted. As one of the world’s leading ports and travel hubs, prolonged closure of Singapore’s transport links due to war would have dire global implications that deter attacks on it. Such interdependence increases economic deterrence.

Managing Great Power Competition

However, intensifying US-China rivalry does complicate Singapore’s strategic environment. Some analysts argue Singapore may be forced to choose sides as big power tensions rise. But Singapore is adept at navigating great power dynamics without over-alignment.

It maintains defence ties with the US while expanding economic partnerships with China. Such omni-engagement broadens Singapore’s diplomatic space. It also avoids directly challenging either power’s core interests. This judicious balancing sustains Singapore’s strategic autonomy within sharpening US-China competition.

Could Territorial Ambitions Prompt Aggression?

Some perceive Singapore’s vast maritime port infrastructure as highly valuable real estate that major powers may someday covet forcibly. Its strategic location astride key shipping lanes also enhances its desirability.

However, seizing Singapore by force would devastate its infrastructure and displace global supply chains that even potential aggressors rely on. All-out war is least rational for capturing Singapore’s real assets intact. Territorial aggrandisement is therefore an implausible war motivation.

Facilitating Insurgency and Civil Conflict

Rather than direct attacks, Singapore possibly faces higher risks from externally sponsored insurgencies and civil conflicts. Foreign states could exploit political or ethnic grievances to stoke unrest. Clandestine support for armed militias or violent extremists could destabilise Singapore.

Domestically, racial and religious faultlines if aggravated could also spur civil strife. Hence while externally originating wars are remote, Singapore remains vigilant against clandestine efforts to indirectly fracture its society.

Conclusion: War Highly Unlikely Barring Extreme Circumstances

In conclusion, Singapore’s acute strategic vulnerabilities and non-belligerent posture make war exceedingly unlikely barring dire breakdowns in regional order. Its reliance on international rule of law discourages aggression.

Diplomatic savviness pre-emptively resolves tensions before they escalate uncontrollably. Mature deterrence capabilities also signal Singapore is no walkover. Economic interests increasingly intertwine Singapore with global stability. Therefore, only radical international disorder on par with World Wars would probably drag Singapore into war unwillingly.

Through continued prudence and principled internationalism, Singapore can persist as a beacon of peace and prosperity in Southeast Asia.

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