US Vice President Kamala Harris’ first visit to Singapore and Asia on August 22 was a significant step from the Biden administration, focusing on the Indo-Pacific and a confirmation of the US commitment to partnerships with the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) region. It was clear from her speech that US Indo-Pacific policy remains China-centered. Singapore, a small city-state with great reliance on international trade to survive, has constantly called for peaceful exchanges. The Singapore case is an example of a small state that exhibits an independent foreign policy in the great powers’ struggle for power. Singapore has maintained the neutrality of the rivalry between the United States and China.
However, the ASEAN states generally have a positive view of the United States with over 61% of respondents if ASEAN was forced to take sides as found in 2021 State of Southeast Asia Survey performed by 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 United States.
China’s gains in Southeast Asia are losses to the United States (and vice versa), which is why Obama’s pivot-to-Asia policy and Trump’s Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA) have made it clearer to change the status quo in Southeast Asia in particular, and Indo – Pacific in general. But President Trump neglected ASEAN, which could be seen in absence from ASEAN-related summits and withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Nevertheless, Harris ‘speech, in light of many concerns about US foreign policy in connection with former President Bush’ in partnership with the dictum ‘you are either with us or against us’, briefly called for the current US foreign policy The political strategy is not to force any state. She says: “I have to be clear, our commitment to Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific is not against a single country. Nor is it designed to make anyone choose between countries.” But because of its China-centered policy in the region, it is a matter of political choice that invites ‘like-minded’ partners to a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ on the basis of a rules-based international order. She said: “Beijing continues forcing to intimidate and claim the vast majority of the South China Sea (SCS). “Thus, the Quad and US-Mekong partnership is seen by the Beijing administration as a threat to China’s interests in the region. Her visit means Bidens offensive diplomacy in Southeast Asia.
The bilateral tension in the SCS, for example, has led to extensive naval exercises on both sides, which has led to an exchange of words. Recently, China conducted five-day naval exercises in SCS in the midst of military exercises in all areas conducted by the United States in the Indo-Pacific region along with the United Kingdom, Australia and Japan, which began from 2 to 27 August. The United States defends the rights of opposing states in the SCS, citing that the 2016 International Court of Justice ruling upholds its claims in most parts of the SCS, and that Beijing’s actions continue to undermine the rule-based order and threaten the sovereignty of nations. Beijing warns Quad members not to violate sovereignty rights and international law and to avoid harming regional peace and stability while performing naval exercises.
Singapore’s diplomacy as a strategic tool
In this context, Singapore plays a crucial role between the two great powers. Due to its geostrategic location connecting the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean and its status as a global port and a hub for 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 great powers. Moreover, its soft strength is its attractive business model. It is known for its effective policies and skilled professionals, which in combination with its strategic location becomes a soft power to count on.
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. But from a realistic perspective, it is severely limited in material hard powers, as it is a small state without natural resources. It has successfully played diplomacy as a strategic tool.
Singapore has redefined the very idea of coalition of ‘like-minded’ partners, who have traditionally been understood from a Western perspective as partners in a similar political system, for example, Western democracies demand democratic values and human rights. Singapore is a ‘like-minded’ partner for the West and the United States because it is open to trade and investment and a democratic country. However, it is also in a working partnership with China, which is often termed by the West as an ‘undemocratic’ country due to 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-racist society, it has from time to time been criticized for its human rights registers. Its foreign policy approach applies to the adaptation 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 the global economy.
Singapore is strategically and commercially the key to both great powers. Thus, it can partner with important military and naval exercises with China as well as the United States without provoking the other. It possesses significant naval forces in Southeast Asia. It has achieved a significant upgrade of its defense preparedness from them.
Singapore’s diplomatic ‘wisdom’
A few points about its diplomatic ‘wisdom’ are worth mentioning.
First, Singapore is crystal clear about its policy of ‘neutrality’ in the US-China conflicts. Second, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong does not shy away from provoking US policy on China, which he believes has moved away from healthy competition with China to the view that the US ‘must win, one way or another’, said at an online meeting of the Aspen Security Forum in August 2021. He further stated that “the same forces limit and shape the policy of the current US admins towards China, which shaped the previous administration”. Further on China, he said that “In China, two positions have become assertive and robust: China’s strategic and economic influence has grown; it has taken 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, over which the two great powers are vying. Many countries have welcomed China’s development and prosperity, which is seen as an opportunity to thrive together. As for Taiwan, he said categorically that Beijing would probably not take a unilateral step to ‘invade’ Taiwan. Moreover, China does not feel threatened by Kamala’s visit, which will not affect the supply chain advantage, is based on the close cooperation between China and the Southeast Asian nations.
Third, born out of the shadow of the Cold War, Singapore has learned the lesson of tough power politics and is adopting the ASEAN method of cooperation and mutual understanding. It thus supports an “open regionalism” which is inclusive. It often stands up to major powers like China, Britain and the United States, so it is not taken for granted. This is with the view that the uncertainty surrounding the great powers is dangerous for peace and stability in the international order.
He worries about the dangers due to miscalculations, which require a clear and consistent US policy. He said: “In this situation I would say to both, take a break, think carefully before you fast forward, it is very dangerous.” Prime Minister Lee also proposed the Trump administration in the same tone at a virtual dialogue in the Atlantic Council in 2020. It is the view of many countries that the problematic relationship between the United States and China can be “checked”. Singapore has always stood for a transparent foreign policy, rule-based international order, multilateralism and peaceful methods of conflict resolution.
Singapore’s approach to rivalry between the US and China is “balanced”, as it recognizes the fact that China is ASEAN’s largest trading partner, while the region is on guard against China’s aggressive push into the SCS. Prime Minister Lee’s vision of peace and neutrality is embedded when he says: “The United States is still number one, but number two (China) is not so far behind”. Singapore is thus leading by example in the crucial moment in international politics in which the United States has shifted its optics from the Atlantic to the Pacific, resulting in the US-China trade war affecting global trade.
Singapore has been successful in governing and accommodating the two great powers and cooperating with both states in strategic and economic relations. Whether the vision of a small state could dampen egos from the struggle for power with great powers setting the tone and degree of commitment must be closely monitored. However, such a co-operation approach is acceptable to many countries when countries are expected to choose side.
(The play is authored by Mehdi Hussain, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Kirori Mal College, University of Delhi)