As the current Asean chair and country coordinator for Asean-China dialogue (2015-2018), Singapore is facing challenges and pressures in navigating fluid regional uncertainties with increased power competition between the US and China.
In a speech on December 5, 2017, Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said: “Singapore is, by land area, the smallest. We are the smallest member of Asean. So we will never be the ‘leader’ of Asean.
“Our role, at best, is to be an honest broker, to call it as it is, but in Professor Tommy Koh’s style, to facilitate resolution. Don’t aggravate things, don’t make things worse, no need to grand stand, no need to posture.”
Can Singapore be an honest broker?
It is easier said than done. At least from its track record of “neutrality” and the dynamism of Singapore’s diplomacy with the two superpowers, the claim as an “honest broker” is rather doubtful.
Singapore’s relations with China became sour when it showed its proactive role in coordinating Asean’s position to challenge China on South China Sea issues, exploiting Asean’s unity and solidarity and undermining its assumed neutrality as a non-claimant state.
It is reported that Singapore also made efforts to raise the South China Sea issues even in the non-Asean platforms. For instance, the Global Times wrote on September 30, 2016, “the heart of the issue is whether Singaporean delegates attempted to shoe-horn the South China Sea arbitration issue onto the agenda at the 17th Non-Aligned Movement summit in Venezuela”.
The Global Times was not reluctant to criticise Singapore, saying “Singapore’s flip-flop stance toward China had to change”.
The editorial on June 11, 2017, said: “Singapore was the most active Asean country, besides the Philippines, that supported the South China Sea arbitration case. In addition, it opened its military base to US anti-submarine reconnaissance aircraft for patrols over the South China Sea”.
According to Mark J. Valencia, “Singapore also frequently repeats the US mantra of protecting ‘freedom of navigation’. For the US, this means freedom to undertake surveillance probes in China’s exclusive economic zone.
“To Singapore, it means freedom of commercial navigation, which China has not hampered. This implicit conflation of the issues by Singapore plays to the US public diplomacy strategy and angers China.”
With a low level of trust, it was Lawrence Wong, Singapore’s Minister for National Development – not Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong – who was invited to represent Singapore at the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing in mid-May 2017.
This was a diplomatic crisis considering Singapore’s long traditional relations with China.
In sharp contrast, amid heated relations with China, relations with the US has become rosy.
Singapore’s Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh was more enthusiastic about Singapore being invited to the White House in August 2016.
“A White House state dinner is a grand occasion, combining pomp, elegance and symbolism. US President and Mrs Barack Obama will host a state dinner in honour of Prime Minister and Mrs Lee Hsien Loong,” Mr Koh wrote in the Straits Times.
PM Lee was invited again, this time by President Donald Trump, in October 2017 and his excitement was clear as he wrote on his Facebook page: “It was a long flight, but seeing the Singapore flag flying over the historic Blair House certainly lifts the spirits! It is an honour to stay here in the President’s Guesthouse for the third time.”
For the US’ part, President Trump lavished his appreciation for Singapore’s loyalty.
During the visit of PM Lee in 2017, President Trump said: “Singapore is one of our closest strategic partners in Asia…The US-Singapore relationship has made both of our peoples far more prosperous and secure, and our values have made us longstanding friends. We are fortunate to have such a wonderful and loyal partner.”
Economically, the Free Trade Agreement between the United States and Singapore supports 215,000 American jobs and the United States enjoys a $20 billion trade surplus in goods and services annually. There are 4,200 American businesses in Singapore and American businesses invest more than $180 billion in Singapore.
Military cooperation is more than robust. According to The Heritage Foundation Index of US Military Strength published in October 2017: “The United States does not have bases in Singapore, but it is allowed access to several key facilities that are essential for supporting American forward presence.
“Since the closure of its facilities at Subic Bay, the United States has been allowed to operate the principal logistics command for the Seventh Fleet out of the Port of Singapore Authority’s Sembawang Terminal. The US Navy also has access to Changi Naval Base, one of the few docks in the world that can handle a 100,000-ton American aircraft carrier.
“In addition, a small US Air Force contingent operates out of Paya Lebar Air Base to support US Air Force combat units visiting Singapore and Southeast Asia, and Singapore hosts two new Littoral Combat Ships (LCS) (with the option of hosting two more) and a rotating squadron of F-16 fighter aircraft.”
Such dynamism is indeed a challenge for Singapore to contest its neutrality claim. If China is putting too much pressure on Singapore’s chairmanship, the US might challenge China in various ways to keep China busy.
However, the problem may arise if Singapore, on behalf of the US, takes the issues that are interconnected with the influence competition to Asean’s table and divide countries with different views, neglecting its duty for “neutrality” or what it claims as an “honest broker”.
Chan Kunthiny is a Cambodian analyst based in Phnom Penh.