Strategic competition between major powers, particularly between China and the US, is poised to heighten from this year onward. The geo-strategic balance of power is shifting.
International issues and actors are getting more complex and multi-dimensional.
Amidst such rising uncertainty and complexity, Singapore, similar to other Southeast Asian countries, is not interested in picking sides. Promoting Asean unity and centrality is the pillar of foreign policy of the states in Southeast Asia.
Assuming the rotating chairmanship of Asean this year, Singapore focuses on two key words, “resilience” and “innovation”, to further promote Asean integration and community building.
Four key areas to be emphasised this year include the digital economy, collective resilience against common threats such as terrorism, cyber security and maritime security, investment in people and economic and financial resilience.
The Asean Foreign Ministers’ Retreat and Asean Defence Ministers’ Retreat, taking place in Singapore from February 4 to 6, aim to exchange views and build a consensus on certain key agenda.
Notably, Chinese Minister of National Defence General Chang Wanquan will also have an informal meeting with Asean defence ministers on the sidelines of the Singapore Airshow 2018.
The meeting is a significant step towards trust building in practical security cooperation between China and Asean, especially maritime cooperation in the South China Sea.
As a country coordinator for Asean-China from 2015 to 2018, Singapore has played a productive role in facilitating bilateral cooperation and the partnership.
China praised Singapore for being “positive” and “constructive” in promoting Asean-China relations.
“We commend Singapore for playing a positive and constructive role in advancing China-Asean relations,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters in August 2017.
Aligning Asean’s priorities with China’s regional initiatives such as the Belt and Road Initiative and Mekong-Lancang Cooperation serves regional common interests.
As a logistics and financial hub in Southeast Asia, Singapore has a critical role to play in further connecting China with Asean and promoting a wider regional connectivity.
Last year, Singapore and China agreed to explore business cooperation opportunities in implementing the BRI. Both countries also agreed to set up a business dispute settlement mechanism under the BRI.
The bilateral trade volume with China accounts for 13 percent of Singapore’s total global trade. Singapore is China’s second largest investor with investment capital of more than $16 billion.
China is the largest trading partner of most of the Asean member countries. Last year, the bilateral trade volume topped $514.8 billion. Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore are the top trading partners of China. In 2015, China invested more than $14 billion in Asean.
Although the bilateral economic ties have grown robustly over the years, China and Asean still need to work closer to overcome a certain degree of strategic distrust, mainly deriving from the outstanding differences and disputes in the South China Sea.
China’s relations with some Asean member countries reached a low point after the issuance of the award on the South China Sea by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in July 2016. China rejected the award. Asean does not have a consensus about the issue.
In 2017, the then Philippine chair of Asean tried to restore political trust and confidence between Asean and China – it resulted in the conclusion of the framework agreement on the negotiation on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea in August 2017.
The formal negotiation on the COC will start from this March. It is expected that the COC would be a legally binding document. But disagreement remains over whether the COC shall include a dispute resolution mechanism.
Talking to the Straits Times last week, Singapore’s foreign minister Vivian Balakrishnan said: “The whole point of the COC is that it’s not going to resolve the competing or overlapping claims, but it is meant to maintain the peace, prevent accidents, prevent misunderstandings and to prevent escalation to a situation that nobody wants to get into.”
He noted that the situation in the South China is “much more calm now”, refraining from putting a deadline on the code.
“Asean and China have now reached 15 years of strategic relations. In fact, we are working on a document to, in a sense, sketch out our vision for how Asean and China will relate over the next 15 years – we’ll say by 2030, what our vision is for that relationship,” he added.
As long as the situation in the South China Sea remains stable and calm, the Asean-China partnership will move smoothly. Singapore deserves to earn credit from the advancement of the bilateral partnership.
Chheang Vannarith is Co-Founder and Vice-Chairman of the Cambodian Institute for Strategic Studies.