Commentary: S'pore will find it harder to maintain its position between US & China

As Sino-U.S. rivalry intensifies, the growing challenge is for small, regional states to continue avoiding choosing sides.

Mothership | August 01, 2020, 11:16 AM

COMMENTARY: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute Senior Fellow Dr William Choong argues that as tensions rise between U.S. and China, Singapore will find it increasingly difficult to maintain its current position between the two superpowers.

In his essay "China-U.S. Relations: Singapore’s Elusive Sweet Spot", he explains why Singapore has devoted much effort to maintaining a balance of power between U.S. and China in Southeast Asia and the implications that their tensions have for Singapore's security.

  • Singapore’s long-standing relationship with the U.S. is a classic exposition of the Republic’s foreign policy – taking the world as it is, and seeking to entrench American power and presence in the region for the collective good.
  • Singapore has sought to involve as many major powers (including the U.S.) in the regional balance, so that no power can dominate.
  • The Singaporean – and ASEAN – position of not “choosing sides” between China and the U.S. is derived from this balance of power approach.
  • Amid intensifying Sino-U.S. competition, the growing challenge for regional states is to continue to eschew choosing sides.

The essay was first published by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, a research centre dedicated to the study of socio-political, security, and economic trends and developments in Southeast Asia and its wider geostrategic and economic environment.

By William Choong

As British scholar Michael Leifer once said, Singapore with its stellar achievements has had an “intensely innate sense of vulnerability”.

The Republic has long seen itself as a price-taker of its external environment – that is, its leadership took the world as it is, it does not adopt an “idealistic view” but seeks to “live with it.”

And its long-standing relationship with the United States exemplifies that.

In September 2019, Singapore and the U.S. renewed a key defence agreement that has allowed the American military to access the Republic’s air and naval bases for nearly 30 years.

By seeking American presence in the region, Singapore seeks to maintain a balance of power between the U.S. and China, which naturally leads to a position of “not choosing sides” between the two countries.

Lee Kuan Yew instrumental in fighting for close Singapore-U.S. relations

From founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew’s perspective, while bigger countries such as India and Japan could afford to distance themselves from the struggle between China and the U.S., smaller Asian countries tend to fear that should America withdraw from Southeast Asia, the Chinese would fill the vacuum, and that would be the end of their independence.

As a result, he was the “most instrumental factor” behind the growth in Singapore-U.S. relations.

Singapore was used as a rest and recreation destination for U.S. troops deployed in Vietnam in 1966.

The Republic, which supported the U.S. war effort in Vietnam, provided maintenance and resupply services for the U.S. Navy.

Exercise Tiger Balm, an annual brigade-level command post exercise, was initiated in 1981, and is now the longest running military exercise between the two militaries.

During the First Gulf War in 1990-1991, Singapore also provided support to U.S. naval ships.

Before stepping down as prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew signed a memorandum of understanding with U.S. vice-president Dan Quayle in November 1990.

The MOU, which was subsequently renewed in 2005 and 2019, facilitates the U.S. military’s access to Singapore’s air and naval bases and provides logistics support to U.S. personnel, aircraft and vessels.

In 2005, a Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA) recognised Singapore as a major security partner of the U.S.

The SFA provided the U.S. with access to foreign facilities on a largely rotational basis, skirting sensitive sovereignty issues, and built on Washington’s strategy of “places not bases”.

Relations on the trade front are similarly strong.

The U.S. is the biggest source of foreign direct investment for Singapore and enjoys a trade surplus with the Republic.

Singapore treats Washington’s power and presence as being vital to regional security, so much so that one senior U.S. official has said that Singapore is a partner that acts like an ally (while the Philippines is more an ally that acts like a partner).

A decline in U.S. military presence and involvement in the region would endanger regional stability by providing opportunities for other large powers to assert themselves. This has been a concern for Lee since the 1960s.

Singapore has sought to prevent regional powers from dominating the region, which is why it was vital for Singapore to have “overwhelming power on its side.”

Singapore seeks to be friends with everybody

Singapore has not pursued its enhanced relations with Washington in isolation; it has also pursued relations with China with the same energy.

Like many other Asia-Pacific countries, Singapore leverages China's economic engine, while benefiting from the security guarantees that the U.S. has provided in the region.

Asked in 2013 whether he worried about the rise of China, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said Singapore would like to “have our cake and eat it and be friends with everybody.”

As long as Singapore’s friends remain “friends with one another” (this includes the U.S., India and the European Union) Singapore was “okay,” he added.

This is somewhat analogous to the concept of ‘virtuous promiscuity’. Coined by Singapore diplomat Tommy Koh, it refers to Singapore’s aggressiveness in pursuing trade deals with many countries.

In 1990, Singapore became the last of the original five ASEAN nations to normalise relations with China. The Republic, with its Chinese majority population, was sensitive to the perception of its neighbours and wanted to avoid being labelled a “third China.”

Healthy Sino-Singapore relationship not without its storms

Sino-Singapore relations are currently in a healthy state. Singapore is China’s top foreign investor and a firm supporter of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road Initiative.

But the bilateral relationship has also weathered some storms.

In 2016, nine Singapore Armed Forces infantry carrier vehicles en route from Taiwan were seized in Hong Kong.

This was followed by Beijing expressing its opposition to any country with any form of official exchanges with Taiwan, which it considers a rogue province.

In October, a People’s Liberation Army major-general told Chinese state radio that China should take retaliatory actions against Singapore for internationalising the South China Sea dispute.

The incidents raised the question of whether Beijing was putting the spotlight on Singapore’s position that Asia-Pacific countries not “take sides” in the contest for influence between China and the U.S.

Singapore seeks a balance between the U.S. and China

Central to Singapore’s approach is the concept of balance in its relationship with China and the U.S.

In 2003, Singapore reportedly turned down the offer of becoming a major non-NATO ally of the U.S.

Speaking to the Asahi Shimbun in 2010, Mr Lee Kuan Yew said Singapore had never sought to conscribe (zhiheng, 制衡) China. Instead, the Republic sought to achieve a balance (pingheng, 平衡) in the Pacific, based on the presence of American power.

Addressing American antipathy towards China and a bipartisan position to curb its rise, PM Lee said in 2019 that the U.S. allies and partners were so “deeply enmeshed with the Chinese” that forcing them to disentangle themselves from Beijing would be “a very challenging stance to take.”

A good example of Singapore’s balancing approach is the updating of a Sino-Singapore defence agreement.

The enhanced Agreement on Defence Exchanges and Security Cooperation is built on a January 2008 agreement that catered for the PLA and Singapore Armed Forces to train together, and has been broadened to include the establishment of a regular ministerial-dialogue, a Visiting Forces Agreement for troops participating in bilateral exercises, mutual logistics support, and a bilateral hotline.

According to one analyst, the Sino-Singapore deal appeared to be designed for China’s military to maintain constructive engagement in defence diplomacy. As part of the Republic’s balancing act, Singapore will not commit U.S. procured weapons in military exercises with the PLA.

Smaller states seek to avoid stark choices

Traditionally, Singapore and smaller states in the Indo-Pacific have sought to avoid stark choices in the geopolitical competition between China and the U.S.—what has been termed the “blessedness of not making a choice.”

ASEAN member countries have similarly adopted an equidistant position between China and the U.S. ASEAN has not openly supported the U.S.-led Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy.

ASEAN’s approach to the Indo-Pacific has been inclusive and not aimed at any particular power (given the sub-context that the U.S. FOIP strategy has an element of containing China).

Small states under increasing pressure to choose sides as Sino-U.S. animosity grows

Amid intensifying Sino-U.S. competition, the growing challenge for regional states is to continue to eschew choosing sides.

Three recent major U.S. documents on the U.S.’ Indo-Pacific strategy have highlighted China’s challenges to American interests.

Released on June 1, 2019, a Department of Defense report included a section on China as a revisionist power, and detailed Chinese behaviour as being aimed at undermining the values and principles of the international system and asserting control over disputed territory in the South China Sea.

The report added that China’s goal in the Indo-Pacific was to achieve regional hegemony in the nearterm and global pre-eminence in the long term.

A November 2019 report on the Indo Pacific strategy published by the State Department said that Beijing sought to “undermine the conditions that have promoted stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific for decades.”

In May this year, the White House released a report arguing that the long-held policy of encouraging China to become a “responsible global stakeholder” had failed.

Rather, China was using its power to “compel acquiescence” from nation states, thus harming vital American interests and undermining the sovereignty and dignity of countries around the world, the report opined.

The danger is that China is now seen in the U.S. as an ideological threat in almost existential terms.

On the Chinese side, Xi Jinping's insistence that socialism will triumph over capitalism raises the spectre that Sino-U.S. competition is spreading into the ideological realm.

His remarks were made in January 2013, shortly after he became CCP general secretary, but were kept secret until the spring of 2019.

China has also become increasingly antagonistic towards the U.S., particularly to American allegations that Covid-19 originated in China.

China’s more muscular response, and “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy, come amid a wave of nationalist sentiments in China, in what Chinese political scientist Zheng Yongnian terms “hybrid nationalism” – a mix of the older generation’s grievance over China’s century of humiliation, and the younger generation’s “commercial nationalism” based on pride in China’s growing prosperity.

How should Singapore continue its sweet spot of not choosing sides?

In the ensuing Sino-U.S. competition, many countries in the Indo-Pacific have resorted to “varying combinations” of hedging and balance, and in some cases, bandwagoning.

These regional states want to continue to reap the benefits of China’s economic clout.

Many welcome (albeit privately) the Trump’s administration’s pushback against China’s assertiveness, but they have sought to avoid “having to choose” between the two major powers.

As for Singapore, this sweet spot of not making a choice has endured for some time.

Unlike America’s formal treaty allies, Singapore does not bear the burden of hosting military bases, and enjoys extensive military ties with Washington. In addition, the Republic’s ties to the U.S. do not provoke China’s ire.

One way to extend the sustainability of this sweet spot is to encourage China and the U.S. to work together and cooperate.

Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June 2019, PM Lee called on Washington and Beijing to reach a “strategic accommodation” despite their dispute over trade, technology and other issues.

Writing in Foreign Affairs a year later, PM Lee noted that cooperation between the two big powers is the “true test of statecraft” and will determine if humanity progresses on global problems such as climate change, nuclear proliferation and the spread of infectious diseases.

The probability of such cooperation, however, looks low for now. The landmark Phase 1 trade agreement signed by China and the U.S. in January 2020 has yet to be implemented, and President Trump has said that the decoupling of the two economies remains an option.

On July 8, Federal Bureau of Investigation director Christopher Wray said that acts of espionage and data and monetary theft by China posed the “greatest long-term threat” to the future of the U.S.

A generally hardening – and bipartisan – stance in America towards China will likely continue, going into the November 2020 presidential elections.

The perceived loss in American leadership will also add to the strategic dilemma for smaller states in the Indo-Pacific, including Singapore.

Small states might be forced to choose depending on Chinese and American actions

Asked by CNN in March 2020 about the need for U.S. leadership in global responses such as pandemics, PM Lee noted that the U.S. has for decades contributed to the world in such situations.

But if America is in a “different mode,” Singapore will “get by” and other “configurations will eventually work out but it would be a loss.”

It is not clear what PM Lee meant by other configurations; but it is clear that in the Indo-Pacific, China’s power is in ascendance.

In January, the ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute’s Southeast Asia Survey of 1,308 respondents showed that many do feel that China has eclipsed the U.S. as the most important strategic and political player in the region.

This means that the search for the elusive sweet spot for Singapore to be in, between China and the U.S. will grow increasingly difficult.

In addition to Singapore, other Southeast Asian states such as Vietnam and the Philippines are facing the same dilemma.

China is Vietnam’s largest trading partner and an important source of foreign investment.

Yet, only the U.S. is seen as the country with the power and will to contain China’s strategic ambitions, including in the South China Sea.

If Beijing continues its assertiveness in the South China Sea, Vietnam will have little choice but to push defence ties with the U.S. further forward.

The Philippines is experiencing a similar dilemma.

While President Rodrigo Duterte announced this February the cancellation of the Philippines-U.S. Visiting Forces Agreement — a defence pact that has undergirded cooperation between the two military allies for two decades — Manila later suspended the decision to cancel the pact in June.

The change of heart highlights Manila’s growing anxiety over China’s opportunism in the South China Sea during the Covid-19 pandemic.

As per Vietnam, a flight to safety in the form of military cooperation with America will only be accentuated with growing Chinese assertiveness.

In essence, not making choices between China and the U.S. is a choice in itself.

But as Singaporean retired diplomat Bilahari Kausikan has said, there may well be “no sweet spot” for Singapore to keep both the Chinese and Americans “happy.”

In fact, the search for the sweet spot will only get more elusive.

Top image adapted via Etienne Oliveau/Getty Images & Xinhua News Agency