Evolving Bilateral Cooperation between Singapore and Australia: Lessons for the World

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In an ever-evolving global landscape, the significance of bilateral agreements between nations cannot be overstated. Bilateral agreements between countries are crucial instruments that shape diplomatic relations, economic ties, and strategic alliances on the global stage. In recent years, the partnership between Singapore and Australia has emerged as a leading example of successful bilateral cooperation. Since the establishment of their formal diplomatic relations in 1965, both countries have signed a number of agreements that have paved the way for deeper cooperation across different levels. Noteworthy are the latest major agreements such as the Australia-Singapore Digital Economy Agreement 2020 and the Green Economy Agreement 2022. These agreements signify a commitment to mutual collaboration across various sectors, showcasing the potential for synergy and shared prosperity between the two nations. Within the current global context of ‘lose-lose dynamics,’ Australia and Singapore are showcasing a great sense of diplomatic maturity and proactiveness to foster a win-win scenario in their bilateral relations that can serve as a potential model for other countries to emulate in their pursuit of diplomatic success.

Six Decades of Australia-Singapore Cooperation

The year 2025 will be the 60th anniversary of Australia-Singapore diplomatic relations as Australia was the second country to recognize Singapore when it became an independent nation in 1965. Commemorating the golden jubilee of their bilateral partnership, both countries established a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP) in 2015 which encompasses four main areas of cooperation economics; foreign affairs; defense and security, and people-to-people through a roadmap known as ‘Project 2025’. For Singapore, the agreement was the first of this kind it has had with any other country. For Australia, the pact has been compared to a similar agreement Australia has with only neighboring New Zealand.

The bilateral trade got a significant boost after the signing of The Singapore-Australia Free Trade Agreement (SAFTA) was signed in 2003. Now, Singapore ranks as Australia’s fifth-largest trading partner overall and holds the position of Canberra’s foremost trading ally within ASEAN. As of 2022, the total bilateral trade volume amounted to $52.9 billion, marking a substantial economic engagement. Singapore also stands as the fifth-largest contributor of foreign direct investment (FDI), injecting a noteworthy sum of $148.6 billion into Australia’s economy in 2022. The two recently signed agreements on the green economy and digital economy are considered to amplify the bilateral trade cooperation further while achieving digital transformation and carbon neutrality goals. Besides, both countries actively cooperate under multiple regional trade agreements such as the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Area (AANZFTA), the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (RCEP), and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

In the defense and security realm, the Australia-Singapore Military Training Initiative (ASMTI) works as a key element to build strong military cooperation under the CSP 2015. In 2020, the two countries celebrated their close defense ties with the 30th anniversary of the Singapore Armed Forces training in Shoalwater Bay in Queensland. In the same year, both countries ratified the Treaty on Military Training and Training Area Development. In 2023, a White Shipping Pact was signed to facilitate information sharing regarding the movement of civil vessels to improve maritime security cooperation. Australian and Singapore military forces also participate in joint-military operations such as ‘Operation Flood Assist 2022’ and ‘Operation Bushfire Assist 2020’ highlighting their mutual readiness to respond to crises. Moreover, as members of the Five Power Defense Arrangements (FPDA), along with Malaysia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, Australia and Singapore bolster regional security through collective defense efforts.

Australia and Singapore align closely in their strategic vision for the Indo-Pacific and Southeast Asia. At the 8th Singapore-Australia Annual Leaders’ Meeting held last year, both leaders emphasized the importance of collaborative efforts in advancing peace and stability across the Indo-Pacific region. They also reiterated their mutual commitment to upholding security and stability in the South China Sea, emphasizing their staunch support for freedom of navigation and overflight in accordance with international law. Australia and Singapore collaborate on regional development initiatives. Australia has been engaged with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as a dialogue partner and its membership in the East Asia Summit reflects its commitment to the development of Southeast Asia. Recently, Australia organized the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit 2024 which highlights Australia’s commitment to Southeast Asia for a prosperous region.

In terms of people-to-people connections, the relationship between Australia and Singapore flourishes on multiple fronts. Over 72,000 Singaporean nationals have chosen to call Australia their home. Approximately 130,000 Singaporeans have benefited from educational opportunities in Australia through initiatives like the New Colombo Plan and Australia Awards. Singapore also holds a significant position as Australia’s fifth-largest inbound tourism market in the 2022-23 financial year. Cultural cooperation between the countries is also robust. An MOU on cooperation in the field of Arts and Culture was signed in 2015. The National Museum of Australia renewed its MOU with Singapore’s National Heritage Board in September 2023. The MoU on Cooperation in Sport was also renewed in September 2020.

Coming into 2025, Australia and Singapore will enter a new phase of partnership as both leaders have pledged to explore new areas of cooperation amid geopolitical uncertainties. Speaking at the 10th Singapore-Australia Annual Leaders’ Meeting, PM Lee Hsien Loong stated “There is much more that our two countries can do together. After all, we are natural partners with complementary economies, compatible world views, and strategic perspectives on the region and international affairs.” His Australian counterpart Prime Minister Anthony Albanese echoed the same expectation calling the new phase “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership 2.0.”

A Model for Bilateral Cooperation for the World

Australia and Singapore have established a robust framework for bilateral cooperation, grounded in mutual respect and shared development goals. This enduring partnership serves as a viable model from which a number of key lessons can be deduced.

Maintenance of Continued Diplomatic Communications

Australia and Singapore always maintain an open and transparent diplomatic line of communication. They do it through frequent high-level diplomatic engagements at regular intervals. For instance, Prime Ministers of both countries meet together annually and the latest Australia-Singapore Annual Leaders’ Meeting was held on March 5, 2024. Along with this, Singaporean and Australian cabinet ministers also meet regularly. Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Richard Marles visited Singapore in June 2023 for the Shangri-La Dialogue and had discussions with their counterparts. Under the Singapore-Australia Joint Ministerial Committee (SAJMC), Australian and Singaporean Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Defense Ministers meet biennially to discuss bilateral trade, defense, and security issues. The 13th SAJMC was held on 1 May 2023. These diplomatic engagements help build trust and confidence among leaders and officials of both countries.

Signing of New Agreements and Upgradation of Existing Ones

Diplomatic officials and policymakers of both countries are always agile in exploring new areas of cooperation and signing new agreements that work as catalysts in their bilateral relations. The latest one is the Singapore-Australia Green Economy Agreement (GEA) which was signed on 18 October 2022 to take action on climate change and strengthen trade and investment in clean energy in the region. The GEA built on the previous MoU for Cooperation on Low-Emissions Solution signed in 2020. Another recent major landmark agreement was the Australia-Singapore Digital Economy Agreement (DEA) entered into force on 8 December 2020 which global landmark for the facilitation of digital trade. Following this, the Australia-Singapore FinTech Bridge Agreement was signed in April 2022. Given the changing global economic landscape, both countries want to bring changes to the SAFTA which was signed back in 2003. Since then, it has been revised six times, with the most recent update in December 2020. Similar to economic sector cooperation, both countries actively sign new agreements and upgrade or renew existing ones in other sectors to excel in cooperation in this dynamic world.

Cooperation under National and Regional Frameworks

Australia and Singapore have formulated a functional framework of cooperation by aligning both national and regional cooperation mechanisms. For instance, while both countries have bilateral free trade agreements, they are also part of regional trade agreements like AANZFTA, RCEP, and CPTPP. It makes the trade partnership between Australia and Singapore more robust and sustainable. Similarly, both countries work together in a number of regional security frameworks such as FPDA and ASEAN-Plus Defense Ministers’ meetings, while Australia and Singapore already have military cooperation frameworks under the CSP. By cooperating under national and regional frameworks, both countries have formulated a formidable partnership that cannot be dismissed easily.

Leveraging Comparative Advantages

Singapore and Australia strategically leverage their respective comparative advantages to foster deeper cooperation across various domains. Singapore, with its strategic location at the heart of Southeast Asia and its status as a global financial hub, offers unparalleled connectivity and access to markets in the region. Meanwhile, Australia boasts abundant natural resources, advanced technological capabilities, and a skilled workforce, making it an attractive partner for Singapore in areas such as energy, agriculture, and innovation. For example, Australia and Singapore signed a new Synchrotron Access Agreement in 2022 to foster innovation by leveraging their respective strengths in this sector. By capitalizing on their complementary strengths, both nations create synergies that drive innovation, enhance competitiveness, and open doors to new opportunities for mutual growth and development.

Mutual Respect and Non-Interference in Foreign Affairs

Australia and Singapore exemplify a relationship founded on mutual respect for each other’s foreign policy choices and values. Despite differing geopolitical contexts, Singapore maintains close ties with China while demonstrating restraint and diplomacy in sensitive matters such as the South China Sea disputes. Despite Australia’s recent diplomatic backlash with China, it refrains from dictating Singapore’s relations with China. Similarly, Singapore has expressed comfort with Australia’s involvement in security alliances like AUKUS, despite a growing concern of nuclear proliferation among ASEAN countries. This pragmatic approach from Australia and Singapore reflects their commitment to maintaining stability, fostering trust, and navigating regional complexities through dialogue and cooperation.

Fostering People-to-People Connections

Strong people-to-people connections always create avenues for a much deeper bilateral diplomatic relationship. Australia and Singapore left no opportunity to strengthen people-to-people ties, reflected by a good number of agreements and MoUs in cultural, educational, and sports cooperation between these two countries. For instance, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra renewed an MOU with Singapore’s Symphony Orchestra in 2022. In education sector collaboration, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) and Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research signed a Master Research Collaboration in 2022. These instruments tremendously help create strong bonds among the people of both countries.

The six decades of friendly diplomatic relations between Australia and Singapore show cooperation is possible in a world marred by geopolitics and relative gain thinking. The partnership proves that bilateral cooperation can bring win-win outcomes in international relations. Despite differences in size and stature, Australia and Singapore have established a mutually beneficial cooperation model. Other countries can take important lessons from this robust cooperation model to improve their diplomatic relations with each other for a prosperous future characterized by mutual cooperation.

– Muhammad Estiak Hussain is a Former Research Assistant at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

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