India cozying up to Singapore

Rajeev Sharma
Rajeev Sharma

Rajeev Sharma

By : Rajeev Sharma

It is not for nothing that Narendra Modi has visited Singapore second time since he took over as prime minister 18 months ago. The only other country to have had this privileged treatment from Modi is India’s next-door neighbor: Nepal.

The attention Modi has given to Nepal has backfired as India has traveled from crisis to crisis and its diplomatic influence in the land-locked South Asian country has taken a beating. Modi will be hoping that similar fate does not befall him in case of Singapore.

Modi has just concluded his bilateral visit to Singapore (Nov. 23-24). He had last visited Singapore on March 29 this year for a few hours to attend the state funeral service of the founding father and first Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew, essentially a diplomatic symbolism conveying that his government accords top priority to forging closer ties with Singapore.

But the just concluded visit was really substantive and laden with strategic agenda as the two countries entered into a strategic partnership and to make the moment special the document was signed by the two prime ministers themselves — Modi and Lee Hsien Loong. Significantly, the signing of the strategic partnership pact comes in the year of golden jubilee celebrations of India-Singapore diplomatic relations, as India was one of the first countries to recognize Singapore’s sovereignty way back in August 1965.

One strange thing about Modi is that he does not believe in traveling with his many ministerial colleagues during foreign trips. While his predecessors always had a large contingent of ministers in tow, particularly foreign minister, Modi likes to travel abroad alone. This is one of the many reasons why the Congress party has often said that Modi is full of “I, Me and Myself”.

One strange thing about Modi is that he does not believe in traveling with his many ministerial colleagues during foreign trips.

Rajeev Sharma

But his Singapore visit was a tad different in this respect. His defense minister, Manohar Parrikar, was also present. The reason for this unusual phenomenon was that India and Singapore also inked a defense cooperation agreement, which was signed by the two sides’ defense ministers.

The two pacts — strategic partnership and defense cooperation — need to be seen in unison. The strategic partnership pact is aimed at deepening and broadening engagement in existing areas of cooperation and catalyze new ones ranging from political, defense and security cooperation to economic, cultural and people-to-people contact. The defense cooperation agreement provides for Defense Ministers’ Dialogue, joint exercises between armed forces, cooperation between defense industries to identify areas of co-production and co-development.

India has strategic partnerships with dozens of countries. But this one is different. The India-Singapore strategic partnership has a huge, substantive agenda and the two sides have been working on it for long.

Just last month India and Singapore decided to revive a “Joint Working Group on Intelligence Cooperation on Combating Terrorism and Transnational Organized Crime” to have real-time intelligence sharing. Post-Paris terror attacks, a truly effective strategic partnership between India and Singapore will be a good strategic tool for the West too as Daesh is now boasting of spreading its tentacles from Tunisia in North Africa to Bangladesh in South Asia.

In many ways, Singapore is quite like Japan for India in strategic terms. Both Asian powers, Japan and Singapore, are fully developed. Both are true friends of India and can contribute to India’s growth story in a big way without any immediate gains for themselves. Both Singapore and Japan have one long-term objective in ensuring speedier and substantial growth of India: To use India as a counterfoil to China.

Japan already has contributed hugely toward this end, but that’s because Japan is mortally scared of China’s rise. In fact, China is the biggest obsession of Japanese people and the government just as North Korea is the biggest obsession of the South Koreans. This is not Singapore’s problem. Singapore is not obsessed with China’s rise. However, Singapore is a Western ally and this should make many things clear from the strategic perspective.

Singaporeans and the Japanese share another commonality: They both don’t jump at anything and take their own time in deciding on policy issues, all the more so when it comes to befriend or “unfriend” someone.

Singapore is India’s tenth largest trade partner with current trade pegged at around $20 billion and the two sides desirous of doubling it in next five years. But more significantly, Singapore is now India’s largest foreign direct investor having invested $36 billion in India in last 15 years.

Now to complete the Singapore comparison with Japan for India, these two countries are so deeply admired in India that it doesn’t matter which political party comes to power in India, New Delhi’s ties with Singapore and Tokyo will remain deeply strategic.

If Japan is bringing about transformation in the Indian infrastructure, particularly railways, Singapore is quietly working on Modi’s pet project of 100 smart cities. India-Singapore close ties are a win-win situation for both.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in the Column section are their own and do not reflect RiyadhVision’s point-of-view.


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