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Diplomacy “without a credible deterrent force capable of putting action to resolve” remains “hollow”: NTU military studies expert Ben Ho

While diplomacy primarily remains the ideal course of action for Singapore in the field of foreign affairs, deterrence serves to be more important as diplomacy will be “hollow” in the absence of “a credible deterrent force capable of putting action to resolve”, opines Ben Ho Wan Beng, Associate Research Fellow with the Military Studies Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

In an opinion piece written for The Straits Times, published on Mon (5 Mar), Mr Ho suggested that “Diplomacy and deterrence … are two sides of the same coin during peacetime, and they have a symbiotic relationship”.

“Deterrence, however, is arguably more important as it underpins Singapore’s “Double-D” security policy,” he wrote.

Mr Ho argued that “had the SAF been weak, it is possible that the diplomatic efforts to resolve the Pedra Branca issue might have developed differently – with Singapore negotiating from a disadvantage”, adding that the same principle extends to the “ongoing maritime and airspace disputes”.

“At the end of the day, might is still right in the 21st-century jungle of international politics, and the species with the sharpest claw has a better chance of survival,” he added.

Mr Ho’s commentary was written on the heels of the announcement of Budget 2019 last month, during which Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat announced that the Government will spend “about $22.7 billion this year, or about 30 per cent of its total expenditure, on defence, security and diplomacy efforts”, and that from the same amount, “some $15.5 billion will be allocated to the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) – up from $14.8 billion the previous financial year”.

Consequently, Mr Ho noted that the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) had launched its first Invincible-class submarine the same day, and just last week, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen added that Singapore is planning to purchase the F-35 Lightning II. MINDEF had also announced that “the stealth fighter is the foremost possibility to replace the F-16 Falcon in the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) from the 2030s”.

He added that “the procurement of the F-35 Lightning IIs will propel Singapore into the echelons of fifth-generation air forces – and the first of such forces in South-east Asia”.

“In this regard, the introduction of the F-35s – coupled with the well-documented proficiency of RSAF pilots – would ensure that the Singapore air force holds the edge over potential adversaries,” wrote Mr Ho.

Touching on the RSN’s new submarine, Mr Ho opined that the submarine “can indirectly protect the sea lines of communication that are the lifeblood of Singapore’s economic well-being”, adding: “The Invincible’s ultra-stealth creates uncertainty in the minds of potential adversaries and complicates their attempts to interdict our maritime trade”.

Members of the public opposed to hefty defence spending “fail to appreciate the extent to which an uncertain geostrategic environment, marked by dynamic and multi-faceted threats” necessitates “a modern SAF with robust conventional capabilities”: Ben Ho

Addressing the opinions of netizens who have argued that the Government’s spending on defence and the military is disproportionate, and that such spending ought to be channelled into healthcare and other forms of social spending, Mr Ho noted that such opinions “fail to appreciate the extent to which an uncertain geostrategic environment, marked by dynamic and multi-faceted threats, and where inter-state tensions are increasing, requires a modern SAF with robust conventional capabilities”.

Citing recent frictions in the bilateral relationship between Singapore and its northern neighbour Malaysia regarding maritime and airspace borders as well as the water price dispute, particularly after the takeover by the Pakatan Harapan coalition under the helm of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Mr Ho argued that “enhanced conventional military capabilities like the F-35 jet and the Invincible submarine are important pieces to Singapore’s security chessboard” in light of such “developments”.

“The SAF’s mission statement is to “enhance Singapore’s peace and security through deterrence and diplomacy, and should these fail, to secure a swift and decisive victory over the aggressor”.

“The SAF 2030 initiative would ensure that Singapore’s military remains primus inter pares in the region. Given that the Republic’s security posture is one of forward defence to counter threats from afar well before they reach Singapore, it is imperative that its air force and navy remain unparalleled in the region,” he added.

Pointing to the example of former USA President Theodore Roosevelt, who had utilised “a realpolitik foreign policy where a strong military (big stick) backs up diplomacy (speaking softly)”, Mr Ho said that such a “philosophy of conducting international relations is particularly suitable for the dynamic geostrategic arena of today”.

He suggested that “it always helps to be in a position of strength” in a time of “uncertainty”, adding that “a robust SAF is arguably the best insurance for Singapore’s continual survival and progress as a nation-state”.

“Of course, military might is just one factor of the deterrence equation. The important American diplomat Henry Kissinger once asserted that deterrence is a product of: (i) capability, (ii) resolve, as well as (iii) the opponent’s belief in one’s capability and the resolve to use it.

“Having a potent armed forces (capability) is thus for naught if just one of the other two components of the deterrence equation is lacking.

“This is something Singapore policymakers must bear in mind as they navigate the often murky waters of the 21st-century geostrategic environment,” concluded Mr Ho.

The theory of deterrence, which has the purpose of discouraging an adversarial nation-state from taking an action that has yet to commence, or to prevent said nation-state from doing something that another nation-state desires, rose to prominence during the Cold War era, during which two world superpowers – the United States of America (USA) and the former Soviet Union (USSR) – engaged in a spectrum of acts of deterrence.

Deterrence theory, in practice, was observed notably in the accumulation of nuclear weapons on both sides through Mutually Assured Destruction, as well as global proxy wars during the Containment period of communist ideology, and Détenté, or the cooling of tensions between the USA and the USSR that succeeded Containment.

Professor and Tierney Chair at the Department of Political Science, University of California (Irvine) Patrick M. Morgan wrote that “deterrence has been employed to prevent (or at least limit) the destruction of states, societies, and ultimately humanity”, noting that “no nuclear weapons have been used for destructive purposes since the end of World War II in 1945”.

Updated on WED, 6 MAR 7:20 P.M.