It was probably unthinkable both in Singapore and Australia, even five years ago, that the wealthy south-east Asian city state would be preparing, quite publicly, to send 14,000 troops each year to northern Australia for 18 weeks of training — and spend a cool $2 billion doing it.

Remarkably, the deal has created the federal election’s first superstar (at least in her own lunchtime), in the shape of Michelle Landry, the Liberal National Party member for Capricornia and a self-described “$1 billion woman”.

Such a deal was unthinkable because Australia has long been kept at arm’s length from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, where Singapore is the strategic and financial fulcrum, no thanks to former Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.

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From Singapore’s point of view, it is a move that it would have been too cautious too make in the face of guaranteed opposition from China — a strong defence link from an ethnically Chinese country with a dyed-in-the-wool US ally.

But in recent years the calculus has changed. ASEAN has increasingly failed to deliver on expectations of emerging as an increasingly democratic and cohesive economic bloc despite launching its planned Economic Community on December 31 last year.

In the past two years there has been a military coup in Thailand, sharia law introduced to Brunei, Cambodia’s opposition leader, Sam Rainsy, has been forced into exile, and there is escalating, racially tinged political tensions in Malaysia — and the election of a potentially dangerous demagogue in the Philippines in yesterday’s presidential election. All of this depressing news is counter-balanced only by the cautious hope of the recent peaceful part transfer of power in Myanmar to a democratically elected government, albeit stymied by a bloc of non-elected lawmakers from military, appointed by the military, the last in a long line of juntas that just can’t let go.

Last, but far from least, there is China. Since President Xi Jinping took charge three and half years ago, as its economy has started to seriously struggle the country has embarked on a campaign of brinkmanship in its littoral seas that cannot possibly end well.

Singapore’s view on regional security has clearly changed: it knows China will be furious, but the imperative for insulating itself from China, amid the growing cracks in ASEAN, has now overridden that.

On top of all of this, the presence of a conflict-weary United States in the Asia Pacific remains uncertain, especially with the possibility of Donald Trump as president.

Singapore has long been sending troops to train in Australia (and like most other nations in the region, many of its senior officers have done stints at Duntroon and more recently the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra), but this is a significant step up as the country will spend upwards of $2 billion refitting military bases in Shoalwater Bay near Rockhampton and Townsville. The Australian Defence Forces will get to use these facilities, too. The Singaporeans have money; Australia has land.

The move is a central piece of the landmark Comprehensive Strategic Partnership that includes an upgrade to the already tight-knit economic relationship between Australia and Singapore.

Australia’s High Commissioner to Singapore Philip Green summarised the deal thusly in yesterday’s Straits Times:

“Freer movement for businesspeople between our countries; mutual recognition of more of our universities’ qualifications; a renewed Free Trade Agreement with 21st century rules; major new opportunities for the Singapore Armed Forces to train in Australia; new intelligence cooperation; a new innovation partnership with a ‘Landing Pad’ in Singapore; fresh opportunities for our young people to study together online, and to have working holidays on each other’s territories, and much more.

“It is always good for nations to find new ways to cooperate. But actually, this announcement represents more than the usual bundle of activities that governments find to cooperate on. Not only is it a major package, it is also a key step on a road that will lead to increasingly close connections between us; increasing economic integration; and increasing strategic convergence.”

Plenty of government PR there, but actually, he’s largely on the money. Economically it’s a great deal and well beyond the usual wish lists of regular free-trade agreements, and it caps off a remarkable reversal of fortune for Green, a career diplomat turned one of Kevin Rudd’s senior advisers nabbing the Singapore envoy’s job.

ANZ boss of Singapore, south-east Asia and India David Green said the deal was the biggest step forward in bilateral relations between the countries in a generation.

People running Australian companies wanting to make a bet on Asia should take a good look at Singapore — considering the nation’s political stability and UK-based legal system — ahead of the potentially treacherous lure of China in a heartbeat.

As welcome as the deal is, the timing of the announcement is steeped in politics.

The intent to complete such an agreement was announced by Tony Abbott when he was prime minister last year. The final agreement was to have been announced during a planned visit by Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to Australia this month, but he was forced to postpone the visit due to the Australian election campaign that is now underway.

But cabinet decided it could not park the potential boost the deal could provide. Just like the multibillion-dollar gift to South Australia to help prop up the Coalition — which faces a swing towards Senator Nick Xenophon’s new party in both houses — so the Singapore deal should provide much-needed boost for a the marginal seats of Capricornia and Herbert in Queensland, a state where the Coalition is in trouble, according to polls.

Sure enough, out came the media releases only moments after the deal was announced. “Why Michelle Landry is our $1billion woman” effused, well, Michelle Landry, in her own media release. It was all her, you see. Her statement read:

“I have been pushing hard for more defence-related spending in Capricornia and this announcement is the fruition of long negotiations with Singapore. This is truly one of the most extraordinary deals to directly benefit our local economy that we will see. It’s a once in a lifetime boost to Rockhampton, Yeppoon and the Capricorn coast by a foreign country.”

How humbling for Andrew Robb.

Landry’s colleague, Ewen Jones, the Member for Herbert, an electorate that includes Townsville was more modest. “This is a real win for our local contractors and proof that my Tenders for Townsville campaign is being listened to and acted on by the Turnbull Government, ” Jones’ own statement said.

For sure, it’s a good and very important deal, but there’s a strong whiff of pork in the air.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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