US Vice President Kamala Harris’ first visit to Singapore and Asia on Aug. 22 was a significant step by the Biden administration with a focus on the Indo-Pacific and a reaffirmation of America’s commitment to partnerships with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Nations (ASEAN) region. It was clear from her speech that US Indo-Pacific policy remains focused on China. Singapore, a small city-state heavily dependent on international trade for its survival, has constantly called for peaceful exchanges. The case of Singapore is an example of a small state showing an independent foreign policy in the power struggles of the great powers. Singapore has remained neutral in the US-China rivalry.
However, ASEAN states are generally positive about the US, with more than 61% of respondents if ASEAN were forced to take sides, as shown by the 2021 State of Southeast Asia Survey conducted by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. At the same time, the survey reports that about 76% in ASEAN agree that China is the most influential economic power in Southeast Asia, and 7% for the US.
Zero sum strategy
China’s gains in Southeast Asia are losses to the US (and vice versa), and so Obama’s pivot-to-Asia policies and 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, evidenced by absences from ASEAN-related summits and withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Nevertheless, in his speech, against the background of the concerns of many about US foreign policy over former President Bush’s calls for partnership with the adage ‘you are with us or against us’, Harris succinctly stated that the current US foreign policy strategy is not to force a state. She says: “I have to be clear, our engagement with Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific is not against one country. Nor is it intended to make anyone choose between countries.” However, because of the China-centric policies in the region, it is a matter of policy choices that invite “like-minded” partners for a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” based on a rules-based international order. She said: “Beijing continues to force to intimidate and claim the vast majority of the South China Sea (SCS). For example, the partnership between Quad and the US and Mekong is seen by the Beijing government as a threat to China’s interests in the region. Her visit marks Biden’s offensive diplomacy in Southeast Asia.
For example, the bilateral tensions in the SCS have led to extensive naval exercises on both sides that sparked an altercation. Recently, China has held five-day naval exercises in the SCS amid the domain-wide military exercises conducted by the US in the Indo-Pacific region, along with Britain, Australia and Japan, which will run from 2 to 27 started in August. The US defends the rights of the states that contradict the SCS, citing that the international tribunal’s decision of 2016 refutes its claims in most parts of the 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 damaging regional peace and stability while conducting naval exercises.
Singapore’s diplomacy as a strategic tool
In this context, Singapore plays a crucial role between the two superpowers. Due to its geostrategic location connecting the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean and as a global port and hub for global trade and commerce, finance, logistics, innovation and a critical part of global supply chains, it could play more than just be a balancing act between the great powers. Moreover, its soft power is its attractive business model. It is known for its effective policies and talented professionals which combined with its strategic location becomes a soft power to be reckoned with.
Singapore has prepared itself as a model for a multicultural society, effective governance and an increasingly open economy – 2nd position in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business for 2020. However, from a realistic perspective, it is severely limited in material hard powers as it is a small state is without natural resources. It has successfully played diplomacy as a strategic tool.
Singapore has redefined the whole idea of a coalition of ‘like-minded’ partners, traditionally seen from a Western perspective as partners of a similar political system. Western democracies, for example, demand democratic values and human rights. Singapore is a ‘like-minded’ partner for the West and the US, as it is open to trade and investment and is a democratic country. However, it also has a functioning partnership with China, often labeled by the West as an ‘undemocratic’ country due to a lack of freedom of expression and disagreement, and a ‘violator’ of the human rights of ethnic minorities. Although Singapore is a multi-ethnic and multi-racial society, it has been criticized from time to time for its human rights record. The foreign policy approach applies to China’s housing, which should not be seen as an ‘enemy’ in the changing world order – as shaped and controlled by the West – given its contribution to the global economy.
Singapore is strategically and commercially key to both superpowers. Thus, it can participate in important military and naval exercises with both China and the US without provoking the other. It boasts significant naval forces in Southeast Asia. It has achieved a significant upgrade in its defense readiness.
Singaporean diplomatic ‘wisdom’
There are few points about his diplomatic “wisdom” worth mentioning.
First, Singapore is crystal clear about its ‘neutrality’ policy in the conflict situations between the US and China. Second, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong doesn’t shy away from proclaiming the US’s China policy, which he says has moved away from healthy competition with China to the stance that America “must win somehow.” , said at an online meeting of the Aspen Security Forum in August 2021. He went on to say that “the same forces constrain and shape the current US administration’s policy toward China as the previous administration.” He went on to say about China: “In China, two attitudes have become assertive and robust: China’s strategic and economic influence has increased; it takes a more active international stance and seeks to reform the international order in its favor.” This is a strong and rational assessment of the need for a new international order from the ASEAN region, which the two superpowers are competing for. Many countries have welcomed China’s development and prosperity, which is seen as an opportunity to prosper together. On Taiwan, he said categorically that Beijing was unlikely to take a unilateral step to “invade” Taiwan. Furthermore, China does not feel threatened by the Kamala’s visit, which will not affect the supply chain advantage based on the close cooperation between China and Southeast Asian countries.
Third, born in the shadow of the Cold War, Singapore has learned the lessons of harsh power politics and is adopting the ASEAN way of cooperation and mutual understanding. It thus supports an ‘open regionalism’ that is inclusive in nature. It often stands up to bigger powers like China, the UK and the US so it is not taken for granted. This is based on the view that uncertainties surrounding the major powers are dangerous for the peace and stability of the international order.
He is concerned about the dangers of miscalculations that require clear and consistent US policies. He said: “In this situation I would say to both of them, pause, think carefully before you fast forward, it is very dangerous.” Prime Minister Lee also similarly suggested the Trump administration during a 2020 Atlantic Council virtual dialogue. Many countries believe the troubled relationship between the US and China can be “checked.” Singapore has always stood for 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 recognizes that China is ASEAN’s largest trading partner, while the region is wary of China’s aggressive pressure on the SCS. Prime Minister Lee’s vision of peace and neutrality is embedded when he says “the US is still number one, but number two (China) is not that far behind”. Singapore thus leads the way at the crucial crossroads of international politics in which the US has shifted its optics from the Atlantic to the Pacific, resulting in the US-China trade war affecting global trade.
Singapore has managed to manage and host the two superpowers and cooperate with both states in strategic and economic relations. Whether the vision of a small state could quench the egos of the struggle for power with great powers setting the tone and level of involvement should be watched closely. However, such an approach to cooperation is acceptable to many countries, when countries are expected to take sides.
(The piece was written by Mehdi Hussain, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Kirori Mal College, University of Delhi)