The Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) and the People’s Liberation Army (Navy) (PLA[N]) have commenced their bilateral maritime exercise which runs from 28 April to 1 May.

The exercise underscores bilateral defence relations between Singapore and China and enhances mutual trust and understanding between the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and PLA. Besides bilateral exercises, the two armed forces regularly interact through high-level exchanges, mutual visits, cross-attendance of courses and port calls.

Keep your friends close, but your enemy’s closer

According to GlobaldData’s “Singapore Defense Market 2022-2027” report, Singapore’s defence budget is expected to grow moderately over the forecast period as geopolitical tensions in Asia have increased in recent years.

China is asserting its claims in the South China Sea, thereby alarming its neighbours who hope that the US can balance China’s power in Asia. In 2022, the Singaporean government allocated $12.3bn of its budget to national defence.

In recent years, Singapore’s allies have grown their naval deterrence in moves to prevent China’s assertiveness over the Indo-Pacific. Last month, South Korea launched their Chungham Frigate and the United States and the Phillippines have been performing exercises together and discussing their partnership as tensions rise in the region.

The Exercise Maritime Cooperation platform allows both navies to share best practices and enhance interoperability, enabling them to work together more effectively during maritime security challenges. It also reflects the commitment of both countries to uphold peace and stability in the region.

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Singapore’s strategic neutrality facilitates rare exercise

Singapore has maintained its longstanding policy of neutrality and constructive engagement with all countries, including China. As shown by the countries it has performed naval exercises with, countries such as AustraliaIndia, and the US.

The exercise is conducted in the southern reaches of the South China Sea within international waters and involves a shore phase in RSS Singapura – Changi Naval Base (CNB) and a sea phase. This year’s Exercise Maritime Cooperation is the second in the series since its inauguration in 2015.

The opening ceremony was co-officiated by the RSN’s Commander First Flotilla Colonel (COL) Ng Kok Yeng Daniel and PLA(N) ‘s Chief of Staff of Destroyer Flotilla Senior Captain Mei Leyang at RSS Singapura – CNB earlier today.

During the shore phase, personnel from both navies will engage in joint planning exercises, professional exchanges and combined training at the Damage Control Trainer.

In the sea phase, the exercise will involve the RSN’s Formidable-class frigate RSS Intrepid, Bedok-class mine countermeasure vessel RSS Punggol, and the PLA(N) ‘s Jiangkai II-class frigate Yulin and Wozang-class minesweeper Chib).

The ships will conduct a range of serials, including helicopter cross-deck landing with the PLA(N) helicopter landing on the RSS Intrepid, gunnery firing, replenishment-at-sea approaches, search and rescue, simulated minefield transits, as well as communication and manoeuvring exercises.

The Exercise Maritime Cooperation is a testament to the firm and growing defence ties between Singapore and China and their commitment to promoting regional stability and security.

At the opening ceremony, COL Ng said, “The RSN conducts regular bilateral and multilateral exercises with foreign navies, and Exercise Maritime Cooperation 2023 allows the RSN and the PLA(N) to strengthen mutual trust, understanding, and cooperation. It also enhances our bilateral relationship and people-to-people ties.”

Senior Captain Mei Leyang also said this exercise aims to “further deepen friendship, expand consensus and promote the continuous forward development of the two navies.”

Singapore is currently in a transition of modernisation of its naval forces. The Singapore government’s plans for the Republic of Singapore’s Navy focus on self-sufficiency. In a significant development for Singapore’s naval capabilities, Singaporean ST Engineering has secured an estimated $1.2bn deal to build multirole combat vessels for the Singapore Navy.

The new multirole combat vessels are expected to replace the Republic of Singapore Navy’s existing Victory-class missile corvettes (MCVs), which have served since 1989.