AIDAN SMITH-FAGAN WRITES — Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison met with his Singaporean counterpart, Lee Hsien Loong, in Singapore on June 10- marking the sixth Australia-Singapore Leaders’ Meeting, an annual conference between the two countries – and the first in-person meeting between Lee and Morrison since pandemic travel restrictions began. The two leaders struck a warm tone at the summit as they discussed Australia-Singapore travel, technology, and defense collaboration. Hovering in the background was the question of China, with which Australia of late has been finding so difficult to relate.
At a joint press conference, Lee and Morrison emphasized their intention to work on a Singapore-Australia COVID travel bubble. “We need to resume these people-to-people flows to maintain our close and excellent bilateral relationship,” Lee said. “It starts with mutual recognition of health and vaccination certificates, possibly in the digital form. When all the preparations are ready, we can start small with an Air Travel Bubble to build confidence on both sides.”
Prime Minister Morrison echoed that sentiment, adding that he and Lee discussed giving “a priority to students from Singapore to be able to return to Australia to complete their studies … and for students from Singapore to be a first opportunity to see increased travel between Australia and Singapore realized.”
Green energy was also highlighted as a key point of collaboration. “In science and innovation, we are exploring collaborations on low-emissions solutions to support our climate change efforts,” Lee stated at the press conference. In a joint statement released during the summit, the two leaders also announced AUD$30 million for a public-private partnership which will see “business and government in Australia and Singapore work together on low emissions fuels and technologies, including clean hydrogen and clean ammonia, to drive down emissions in maritime shipping and port operations.”
Long-standing military cooperation between Singapore and Australia is also set to expand. “Last year, in December, our Treaty on Military Training and Training Area Development came into force,” Lee mentioned during the press conference. “Singapore greatly appreciates Australia’s generous and sustained support for SAF’s training. Over many years, in many air bases and camps all over Australia.” That treaty marks the expenditure of AUD$2.25 pledged to building joint training facilities in Queensland, Australia.
Renewed defense commitments come in the context of greater Chinese prominence in the South China Sea, which has caused increased tensions between China and its neighbors in the Indo-Pacific. Although neither leader made any direct reference to China, Morrison mentioned the importance of Singapore and Australia “working together to ensure the stability of our region.” Thursday’s joint statement also mentions how “the Prime Ministers agreed that in an increasingly uncertain and complex strategic environment, Australia and Singapore are like-minded partners with a high degree of strategic trust.” Friday, Prime Minister Morrison arrived in Cornwall, England for the first day of the G7 summit, where South China Sea disputes are likely to be among the wide range of issues on the table. Australia is not a G-7 member but a sideline meeting with President Biden was planned.
Morrison and Lee’s summit reinforced the close bond between Singapore and Australia as the two nations face a host of global challenges together. Whether or not Morrison can walk away from the G7 with equal international consensus on COVID, climate, and China, the constructive tone of the meeting marks a step in the right direction. It may be that Singapore’s well-developed — and largely well-admired — practicality regarding China might have suggested to Morrison a less roiling way of relating to Beijing.