Singapore’s diplomacy outreach on the US-China rivalry
The piece has been authored by Mehdi Hussain, assistant professor, department of political science, Kirori Mal College, University of Delhi
The US Vice-President Kamala Harris’ first visit to Singapore and Asia on August 22 was a significant move of the Biden administration with a focus on the Indo-Pacific and a reaffirmation of America’s commitment to partnerships with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) region. It was clear from her speech that the US Indo-Pacific policy remains China-centric. Singapore, a small city-state with a high dependence on international trade for its survival, has continuously called for peaceful exchanges. The case of Singapore is an example of a small state showcasing an independent foreign policy in the big powers’ struggle for power. Singapore has maintained neutrality in the US-China rivalry.
However, ASEAN states generally hold a favourable view of US with over 61% of the respondents if ASEAN were compelled to take sides as found in the 2021 State of Southeast Asia Survey conducted by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. At the same time, the Survey reports about 76% in ASEAN agreeing that China is the most influential economic power in Southeast Asia, and 7% for the US.
China’s gains in Southeast Asia are losses to the US ( and vice-versa), and, thus, the Obama’s ‘pivot-to-Asia’ policy and the Trump’s Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA) have made it clearer for changing the status quo in Southeast Asia in particular, and the Indo-Pacific in general. But President Trump neglected ASEAN which could be seen in absences in ASEAN-related summits and withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Nonetheless, Harris’ speech, in the backdrop of the concern of many with the US foreign policy associated with the former President Bush’ calls for partnership with the dictum ‘you are either with us or against us’, stated succinctly that the present US foreign policy strategy is not to compel any state . She says, “I must be clear, our engagement in southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific is not against any one country. Nor is it designed to make anyone choose between countries.” However, due to its China-centric policy in the region, it is a matter of policy choices which invites for ‘like-minded’ partners for a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific” on the basis of a rule-based international order. She said, “Beijing continues to coerce to intimidate and make claims to the vast majority of the South China Sea (SCS).” Thus, the Quad and US-Mekong partnership are seen by the Beijing administration as a threat to China’s interests in the region. Her visit signifies Biden’s offensive diplomacy in Southeast Asia.
The bilateral tension in the SCS, for example, has led to extensive naval exercises on both sides leading to an exchange of war of words. Recently, China conducted five-days naval drills in the SCS amid the all-domain military exercises being conducted by the US in the Indo-Pacific region along with Britain, Australia and Japan, which began from August 2 to 27. The US defends the rights of counter-claimant states of the SCS by citing that the 2016 international tribunal decision holds against its claims in most parts of SCS and that Beijing’s actions continue to undermine the rules-based order and threaten the sovereignty of nations. Beijing warns Quad members not to violate sovereignty rights and international law and avoid harming regional peace and stability while conducting naval exercises.
Singapore’s Diplomacy as a Strategic Tool
In this context, Singapore plays a critical role between the two major powers. Due to its geostrategic location connecting the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean and status as a global port and a hub to global trade and commerce, finance, logistics, innovation, and a critical part of global supply chains, it can play more than just being a balancing act between the major powers. Moreover, its soft power strength is its attractive business model. It is known for its effective policies and talented professionals which in combination with its strategic location becomes a soft power to be reckoned with.
Singapore has prepared itself as a model for a multicultural society, an effective governance, and an increasingly open-economy-- 2nd position in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business for 2020. However, from a realist perspective it is severely limited in material hard powers since it is a small state without a natural resources. It has successfully played diplomacy as a strategic tool.
Singapore has redefined the very idea of coalition of ‘like-minded’ partners which traditionally been understood from western perspective as partners of a similar political system, for example, western democracies call for democratic values and human rights. Singapore is a ‘like-minded’ partner for the West and the US for it is open to trade and investment and a democratic country. It, however, is also in a functioning partnership with China, which often is labelled by the West as an ‘undemocratic’ country for lack of freedom of speech and dissension, and a ‘violator’ of human rights of ethnic minorities. Although, Singapore is a multi-ethnic and multi-racial society, it has faced criticism for its human rights records from time to time. Its foreign policy approach holds for accommodation of China which need not be seen as an ‘enemy’ in the changing global order – as shaped and controlled by the West – given its contribution to global economy.
Singapore is strategically and commercially key to both major powers. Thus, it can engage in partnership in key military and naval exercises with China as well as the US without provoking the other. It possesses significant naval strengths in the Southeast Asia. It has achieved a significant upgradation of its defence preparedness from them.
Singaporean Diplomatic ‘Wisdom’
Few points about its diplomatic ‘wisdom’ are worth mentioning.
First, Singapore is crystal clear of its policy of ‘neutrality’ in the US-China conflicting situations. Second, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong does not shy away from calling out the US’s China-policy which he believes has moved away from a healthy competition with China to the view that America ‘must win, one way or another’, said at an online meeting of the Aspen Security Forum in August 2021. Further, he said that “the same forces constrain and shape the policies of the current US admin towards china as shaped the previous administration”. Further, on China, he said that “In China two attitudes have become assertive and robust: China’s strategic and economic influence has grown; it’s taken on a more active international stance and seeks to reshape the international order to its advantage.” This is a strong and rational assessment of the need for a new international order coming from the ASEAN region, which the two major powers are vying for. Many countries have welcomed the development and prosperity of China which is seen as an opportunity to prosper together. On Taiwan, he categorically said that Beijing would not likely make a unilateral move to ‘invade’ Taiwan. Further, China does not feel threatened by the Kamala’s visit which will not affect the supply-chain advantage build based on the close cooperation between China and Southeast Asian nations.
Third, born out the shadow of the Cold War, Singapore has learnt the lessons of hard power politics and adopts the ASEAN way of cooperation and mutual understanding. Thus, it supports an ‘open regionalism’ which is inclusive in nature. It often stands up to bigger powers like China, the UK, and the US so that it is not taken for granted. This is with the view that uncertainties surrounding the major powers are dangerous for peace and stability of the international order.
He worries for the dangers due to miscalculation which requires a clear and consistent policy from the US. He said, “In this situation, I would say to both, pause, think carefully before you fast-forward, it’s very dangerous.” PM Lee also suggested the Trump administration along similar tone at a virtual dialogue of the Atlantic Council in 2020. It is of the view hold by many countries that the problematic relationship between the US and China can be ‘checked’. Singapore has always stood for a transparent foreign policy, rules-based international order, multilateralism, and peaceful methods of conflict resolution.
Singapore’s approach to the US-China rivalry is ‘balanced’ as it acknowledges the fact that China is the biggest trading partner of ASEAN while the region is wary of China’s aggressive push in the SCS. PM Lee’s vision of peace and neutrality is embedded when he says, “the US is still the number one but number two (China) is not so far behind”. Singapore, thus, leads by example in the crucial juncture of international politics in which the US has shifted its optics from the Atlantic to the Pacific, which resulted in the trade war between the US and China affected global trade.
Singapore has been successful in managing and accommodating the two major powers and cooperating with both states in strategic and economic relationships. Whether the vision of a small state could douse the egos of the struggle for power with major powers setting the tones and degree of engagement has to be watched closely. However, such approach of cooperation is acceptable to many countries when countries are expected to pick a side.
(The piece has been authored by Mehdi Hussain, assistant professor, department of political science, Kirori Mal College, University of Delhi)