Australia and Singapore have benefited from different “means” for the same “ends” in their national security reasoning to date, but China’s potential to overtake US influence in the Indo-Pacific region challenges both ways of thinking.
Australia is a regional power in the Southwest Pacific, and Singapore a small city-state in Southeast Asia. Both states are first world nations with developed economies, global diplomatic credibility, and are relatively secure within their regions. While both states generally do not publish national security strategies, the successes in their respective geopolitical contexts are attributed to their national security thinking – a form of grand strategy-making for the coherent and effective combination of their foreign policy and defence approaches.
This article seeks to examine the national security thinking of Australia and Singapore in their strategic culture underpinnings, foreign policy considerations, and military strategy. Thereafter the article will apply a grand strategy-making perspective to critique and contrast the logic of Australia’s and Singapore’s national security perceptions, in terms of their strategy hypotheses, “Ends-Means” fit, and strategic culture-environment balance.
National Security Thinking
A vast continent isolated in the Southwest Pacific with a relatively small populace, Australia has entrenched its strategic thinking that it is unable to defend itself, and has to rely on great powers to provide the guarantee for its security. When Britain withdrew during the late 1960s, Australia sought an alliance with the US to fulfil that role as its security guarantor. According to Bisley, “Australia has a deep sense of vulnerability in its strategic outlook” and profound anxieties even though its part of the world is relatively secure and peaceful. Bisley adds that as a state with European-Anglo identity and liberal democratic ideals, the experience as part of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) forces with the Allied Powers in the world wars became a “foundation myth of national identity” deep seated in its society. This strategic culture comprising this identity, liberal ideology and continued sense of vulnerability, drove Australia to deepen its strategic relationship with the US in support of the US-led global order.
Australia’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper articulates its core interest of a “stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific” region to enhance its security and sustain economic growth. It emphasised US global leadership, international institutions and rules, and Australia’s obligations to do its part regionally and globally, as key pillars to preserve its security. “It is strongly in Australia’s interests, therefore, to support US global leadership, including by maintaining the strength of our alliance” and “contributing to coalition operations in support of global and regional security”. The paper also highlights Australia’s willingness to partner with like-minded states for a shared agenda in freedom, security and prosperity in its near region and the wider Indo-Pacific.
Australia’s military strategy was outlined in its 2016 Defence White Paper (DWP). The DWP specifies the need for a “regionally superior Australian Defence Force (ADF) with the highest levels of military capability and scientific and technological sophistication” to deter direct aggression on the Australian continent, respond to security crises in its immediate region, and support US-led global operations. It describes Australia’s “strong and deep alliance” with the US at the core of its security and defence planning, and its intent to “broaden and deepen” this strategic relationship with the enhancement of the ADF for global coalition operations in the “third concentric circle”. Although there were iterations of DWPs over the years focusing between the ideas of an outward “Forward Defence” and a more inward “Defence of Australia”, Australia’s predominant inclination is towards defending Australia outwards at the third concentric circle. Although the 2020 Defence Strategic Update (DSU) emphasises Australia’s shift in focus on its “immediate region” stretching from “north-eastern Indian Ocean, through maritime and mainland South East Asia to Papua New Guinea and the South West Pacific”, it continues to express its strategic inclination to strengthen its engagement with its international partners – “in support of shared regional security interests and will continue to deepen Australia’s alliance with the United States”. The foreign policy considerations and defence strategy clearly reflected Australia’s strategic cultural inclinations and alignment with the US as the principal ally on both political and military fronts globally, to preserve its national security.
The fall of British-ruled Singapore to Japan in WW2, and the circumstances of its independence, were constructed in its national memory and explained Singapore’s siege mentality and sense of vulnerability in the geographical realities of its region. As an island city-state without natural resources, separation from Malaysia in 1965 left Singapore without an economic hinterland. Britain’s announcement in 1967 that it intended to withdraw its forces from Singapore by 1971 also forced Singapore to quickly build up its own domestic defence force. As the late President S.R. Nathan remarks, “We cannot just depend on others for our own survival and must be able to take our fate and future in our own hands”. This strategic culture of immense vulnerability as a small state in a dangerous neighbourhood drove Singapore’s twin pillars of diplomacy and defence in its national security thinking, and its enduring determination to rely on itself for its security and destiny.
Singapore’s core interests are a stable and peaceful Southeast Asia, ensuring an open and inclusive regional security architecture and global free trade, and the upholding of international law and order. Its foreign policy approach is anchored on the principles of being neutral and relevant, with a multinational orientation. Singapore’s first Prime Minister, the late Lee Kuan Yew remarks, “a small country must seek a maximum number of friends, while maintaining the freedom to be itself as a sovereign and independent nation. We must make ourselves relevant so that other countries have an interest in our continued survival and prosperity as a sovereign and independent nation”. This explains Singapore’s active role to “punch above its weight” to promote multilateral security dialogues, rule of law and free trade both regionally and internationally, and build up good ties and partnerships with regional states and with the major powers. These foreign policy considerations seek to shape the stability of its immediate region, position Singapore as a constructive international player, and establish a wide diplomatic network for economic diversification.
Singapore’s defence strategy is firmly anchored on defending its territorial sovereignty and security interests. Singapore justified the absolute necessity of a compulsory National Service (NS) system to build up the size and capabilities of its armed forces when Britain withdrew in 1971. The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) has since evolved to a third-generation full spectrum fighting force, with technologically advanced Army, Navy and Air Force. While the SAF is built to defend Singapore and its interests, it also participates in some overseas deployments in support of regional and international stability and to combat transnational threats like piracy. “The primary role of the SAF remains to defend Singapore, and to be the final guarantor of our sovereignty”. The foreign policy considerations and defence strategy clearly indicated that Singapore’s national security thinking centred on a non-alignment policy to preserve its freedom of political action and economic resilience, and on its self-reliant independent military actions for its security.
National Security Thinking as Making Grand Strategy
The national security thinking by Australia and Singapore is a form of making grand strategy, aligning the diplomatic and military powers of the state to pursue the policy objective of security. Gray describes grand strategy as “translating political purpose, or policy, into feasible military, and other plans”. Such grand strategy-making is essentially a problem-solving process, to understand the problem and its context, and in developing suitable and feasible options to solve the problem. Three aspects are critical for effective grand strategy-making: strategy hypothesis, “Ends-Means” fit, and strategic culture-environment balance.
Effective grand strategy-making requires developing a hypothesis or “Theory of Victory” – “purported explanations of how desired effects can be achieved by selected causes of threat and action applied in a particular sequence”. The strategy hypothesis is a cause-and-effect logic within a specific strategic context to gain strategic advantages and achieve desired outcomes. Another aspect of grand strategy-making is “aligning aspirations with capabilities” – the appreciation of strengths and weaknesses, and the tight coupling of “ends” with “means” in order to ensure achievable outcomes. This is an important aspect of grand strategy-making, to calibrate policy aims within capabilities and prevent strategic overstretch. The third aspect is the balance between strategic culture and strategic environment analysis. Grand strategy-making is heavily influenced by strategic culture – the “prime mover of thought, judgment, policy”. While strategic culture may provide tragic sensibility and strategic learning, it may lead to rigid or biased perspectives of policymakers when interpreting and analyzing the prevailing strategic environment, thus resulting in flawed strategy hypotheses and ineffective strategies. Therefore, a discerning balance of strategic culture-environment in strategy-making is fundamental.
Analysis of Australia and Singapore National Security Thinking
Australia’s strategy hypothesis is that its continued strategic alliance to support US leadership on the political and military fronts globally, would preserve order and stability in the wider Indo-Pacific region. This would maintain the geopolitical balance of power and a US-led global order favourable to Australia’s interests, and secure US commitment to Australia’s security in the Southwest Pacific. As White notes of the 2016 DWP, Australia assumed no alternative in its security and “almost completely abandoned the idea of self-reliance and instead gave priority to building the ADF to fight alongside America in a war with China”. Bisley notes the expeditionary capabilities of the ADF, and remarks that “a much greater imperative is developing the capacity to support the strategic policy of its ally”. Noting the long-term growing economic leverage, political influence and assertiveness of China in the region, White critiques that it would be unwise for Australia to assume continued US pre-eminence over China and continue depending on the US for its security. It is worth thinking about White’s opinion on China not being an imminent “strategic threat” with the intentions for an attack on Australia, but rather a “strategic risk” with the potential to emerge as a strategic threat in the future. This is an important point, noting Marrickville Peace Group’s and Wesley’s opinion that the Australia-US bilateral arrangements to support US strategic rebalancing such as basing for US forces add to the US-China tensions in the region, thus potentially compromising Australia’s interests and security. Australia’s strategy hypothesis may exacerbate the conditions to increase the strategic risks of China becoming a strategic threat, rather than reducing its probability.
Singapore’s strategy hypothesis is twofold: first, its non-alignment foreign policy and efforts to build good ties with all states in geopolitics and economic diversification, would provide it with the diplomatic space to be a neutral, constructive and relevant regional and international player. This reduces the strategic and economic risks and implications of being caught between geopolitical and great power competition. Second, being self-reliant for its own national defence provides better assurance for Singapore’s security. This also avoids subjecting its survival to the strategic calculus and domestic politics of its allies, or obliging Singapore with alliance commitments in other geopolitical conflicts, thus compromising its neutral foreign policy positions. Singapore’s first foreign minister, S. Rajaratnam, states that “a non-alignment policy gives Singapore greater freedom of manoeuvrability on specific international issues based on its national interests. An aligned position would automatically oblige Singapore to adopt the stand of the major ally”. Specifically, in terms of relationships with great powers, Khong notes that Singapore “has not hesitated to stand its ground when the occasion demands” when dealing with China and the US. He elaborated on situations in multilateral meetings when Singapore stood its ground on neutral and principled positions, against the demands of China or the US. This strategy hypothesis has allowed Singapore to manage the geopolitics in the region objectively with a principled and issues-based approach to pursue its national interests consistently, without being coerced or obliged into taking sides and without major concerns of security and economic repercussions.
Australia aligned its national security aspirations to its capabilities. The ends of a “Secure Australia” are being achieved successfully with the US alliance, given what it is willing to commit for security spending. Australia has fluctuated its defence spending at around 2% of GDP for the last decades to field an ADF that is able to interoperate with the US military in global coalition operations effectively to commit to its strategic alignment. This “Ends-Means” coupling is fit for purpose based on Australia’s strategy hypothesis of deepening the Australia-US alliance to shape global stability and ensure security in its region. White states that “spending 2 per cent of GDP would be enough to keep us secure – because we could rely on America to do for us whatever needed to be done that we could not do for ourselves”. Noting that Australia is not ready to commit more for security in terms of percentage of GDP, its ends of a “Secure Australia” must continue to include the US in its national security equation.
Singapore aligned its capabilities to fulfil aspirations. Singapore’s national security aspiration is to be self-reliant for defence, and has resourced it with a steady, prudent and consistent approach to defence spending to reflect its commitment for peace and security. As Vasu and Loo point out, “historical lessons of both the Japanese invasion and the tumultuous years in Malaysia imprinted upon the psyche of the old guard the need to secure Singapore’s borders at all cost”. This also includes the economic and opportunity costs of a NS system, in which every male citizen and Permanent Resident serves two years of full-time NS and typically ten more years in reserve. Singapore has not re-calibrated its self-reliant national security aspiration, but instead prioritised the consistent allocation of resources to ensure defence capabilities are built to fulfil that aspiration. In this respect, although unlike Australia, Singapore has similarly achieved a tight “Ends-Means” coupling.
Strategic Culture-Environment Balance
Australia’s strategic culture has entrenched its relationship with the US over the last seven decades. Its Western identity and liberal values aligned well with the US as a reliable like-minded partner. Given the preponderant US political, economic and military power post-WW2 and its fight against communism through the Cold War period, Australia’s alliance with the US then was clear and compelling. The argument for the alliance made even more sense post-Cold War during the period of US pre-eminence, and the strategic culture-environment calculus continued to be coherent in Australia’s national security thinking.; However, changes in the strategic environment with the rise of China did not seem to shift Australia’s strategic thinking, and its strategic culture continued to drive its national security choices. White notes that “it has been clear since the early 1990s that China’s rise was likely to transform Asia’s strategic order, and that America’s future role could therefore not be taken for granted” and yet “the consensus response has been to double down on our support for, and dependence on, America”. Beeson and Bloomfield caution on the consequences of this “path dependence” being rooted in Australia’s strategic thinking. China’s intensifying strategic rivalry with the US, and its increasing geoeconomic leverage over Australia, will place Australia in a strategic dilemma on its choices for national security. As Wesley highlights, “the bifurcation of Australia’s security and economic interests poses difficult choices for Australia”. Australia may need a more discerning balance between its strategic cultural inclinations and the realities of its strategic environment.
From its early years of independence, Singapore saw US political, economic and security presence as vital to ensure a peaceful and stable region that was conducive to the development of the city-state. Like other states, Singapore benefited from the international liberal order and free market system championed by the US, and US commitment in Asia also provided stability in an unstable region. While there was no Singapore-US alliance due to its non-alignment policy, Singapore’s strategic culture-environment calculus in its national security thinking sought to anchor US presence in the region – which was compelling and served it well. Khong also highlights that building ties with China in the 1960s or 70s was unthinkable, because of China’s ongoing Cultural Revolution as well as Singapore’s own domestic battles against communist influence. Nevertheless in the 1980s when China embarked on its political and economic reforms, Singapore sought rapprochement and established formal diplomatic ties in 1990. Since then, bilateral relations and economic cooperation between the two states has continued to grow. Similar to Australia, Singapore’s strategic cultural inclinations have remained unchanged from the 1960s to the present day, even with major shifts in the strategic environment and circumstances. However, its national security thinking was able to adapt to the US-China shifting balance of power without compromising its long-standing foreign policy principles.
Australia and Singapore have both been successful in achieving their national security ends, preserving peace and stability within their regional and geographical context over the last several decades. Their national security perceptions have reflected practical strategy hypotheses based on each nation’s strategic culture-environment calculus and analysis, and within realistic “Ends-Means” coupling. Nevertheless going forward, both Australia and Singapore will have to constantly examine their national security thinking, particularly given the intensifying US-China strategic competition.
Australia needs to reframe its strategic culture-environment calculus critically, and examine the potentially counter-intuitive logic of its strategy hypothesis anchored on an US alliance. This could be the “dead knot” that needs to be loosened in order to provide Australia with more diplomatic, economic and security space. Singapore’s strategic culture-environment coherence and strategy hypothesis of non-alignment and self-reliant defence, have allowed it to navigate the evolving geopolitical realities over the last few decades, although not without dilemmas and the inherent “Ends-Means” challenges of a small state.
The rising influence of China and its competition with the US is unlike any other in modern history. States such as Australia and Singapore may need strategic recalibration in their national security thinking to preserve their freedom of action and national interests. Cosgrove aptly describes that “any effective grand strategy must be directed at securing a nation’s freedom of action, delivering a range of political choices and options that permit the pursuit of legitimate sovereign interests and the maintenance of economic prosperity within the international system”. Profound challenges lie ahead for Australia to reframe its relationships with the US and China, and for Singapore to maintain its non-alignment posture as a small state. In geopolitics and statecraft, the old maxim of “there are no permanent friends, only permanent interests” should continue to drive the strategic calculus of all states.
About the Author
Fredie Tan is a Brigade Commander in the Singapore Army, and attended the Defence and Strategic Studies Course (DSSC) at the Australian War College in 2020. He has held various command and staff appointments in the Singapore Armed Forces over the last 25 years. These include Commanding Officer, 3rd Battalion Singapore Guards; Head, Overseas Training Policy Branch-G6 Army; and Head, Doctrine Development Group-HQ TRADOC. He graduated from the Singapore Command and Staff course in 2009, and from the University of Adelaide in 2002. This article reflects his personal views and does not represent the views of the Singapore Armed Forces or the Singapore Government.
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