In what could be a key strategic development that could raise the eyebrows in Beijing, India now has an arrangement to have its naval warships refuelled and restocked at Singapore, located at gateway to the contested waters of the South China Sea through which passes some 35 per cent of Indian trade.
India and Singapore on Wednesday signed a Navy-to-Navy agreement. Defence Minister of Singapore Dr Ng Eng Hens at a joint press conference with his Indian counterpart Nirmala Sitharaman said: “We encourage Indian Navy to visit Changi base (Singapore) more often. The bilateral Navy agreement has the mutual logistics support.”
He went on to say that both countries would increase more participation and activity in the Malacca Straits and the Andaman Sea. Singapore sits at the eastern edge of this crucial water channel that is the shortest route between Indian Ocean with the Pacific Ocean.
The Navy will have a full-fledged logistics facility that is 2,177 km east from its nearest base at Port Blair in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal. This is the first such military logistics agreement with a country east of Malacca indicating a shift eastwards for the Indian Navy.
In the past decade, India has laid down its primary area of interest as the sea between the Gulf of Hormuz (Persian Gulf) and the Straits of Malacca. The waters east of Mallaca have been an area of secondary interest and with this move will buttress Indian engagement with the 10-member Asean bloc.
Indian Navy has started its Mallaca patrol in June this year to protect the sea lanes of communication (SLOCs). The US Department of Defence, in its Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China 2017 highlighted why the Malacca Straits were crucial for China.
It said, “Malacca Straits are critical to the transport of natural gas and oil…China is particularly reliant on unimpeded sea lane of communications like the South China Sea and Malacca Straits.”
“In 2016, approximately 80 per cent of China’s oil imports and 11 per cent of natural gas imports transited the South China Sea and Strait of Malacca. Despite China’s efforts, the sheer volume of oil and liquefied natural gas that is imported to China from the Middle East and Africa will continue to make strategic sea lane of communications important to China,” the report noted.
In 2016, China imported oil to meet approximately 64 per cent of its needs. This figure is projected to grow to approximately 80 per cent by 2035, according to the International Energy Agency.
China continues to look primarily to the Persian Gulf, Africa to satisfy its growing oil and gas demands, making the Malacca Straits even more important.