Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan delivered a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington on May 15, during which he called on the US not to view China purely as an adversary to be contained. Balakrishnan’s remarks reflect Singapore’s concern amid the rising strategic competition between China and the US. It also indicates that Singapore fears to be involved in China-US competition or be forced to “take sides.”
The key points of his speech are clear, mainly including the following aspects. First, Singapore expects a sustained American presence in Southeast Asia and the whole world. The US should maintain its leading position in the international order through technological and talent advantages. The practice of “America First” or any US destruction of the current international order is not in line with Singapore’s wishes.
Second, China is the beneficiary of the US-led world order after World War II. With its influence increasing in the international arena, China will for sure want to have a bigger say in shaping the evolving international order. It is not necessary for the US to view China as a “strategic competitor” or a “revisionist power.” Both China and the US should take into account China’s increasing influence, based on which the two nations should care for each other’s legitimate interests and formulate strategic solutions through dialogue.
Third, Singapore has been affected by the strategic competition between China and the US, especially the fierce trade frictions. China-US strategic competition has also created great uncertainty and volatility for Singapore’s markets.
Fourth, Singapore is not willing to make a choice between the US and China. Therefore, Balakrishnan’s speech shows Singapore’s tradition of striking a balance between China and the US, and also signals some changes.
What remains unchanged is that Singapore still hopes the US leading role can be maintained in the region. Singapore regards this as a key link in its “balance of powers strategy” proposed by founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Countries such as Singapore believe the US is the only power capable of counterbalancing a full-fledged China and it is crucial to keep the US interested in Asia. So they are anxious about America’s indifference to the region and delighted by the US “pivot” or “rebalancing” to Asia.
It’s also unchanged that Singapore tries to strike a balance between China and the US through the “balance of powers strategy.” Like most other ASEAN countries, Singapore is not willing to totally side with China or the US, or put itself in the middle of the two powers. Instead, it advocates ASEAN “centrality” in regional affairs and tries hard to ensure the certainty of regional security.
However, changes are also remarkable. Under US President Donald Trump’s doctrine of “America First,” although Southeast Asia is still regarded as forefront for the US strategy toward China, the US has made the commitment mostly in rhetoric not real actions, which is concerned by Singapore as well. There also emerges a divergence between Singapore and the US on maintaining the existing multilateral trade system. In this case, Singapore calls for the US to maintain its presence in the region, but at the same time, it actively seeks to cooperate with countries that adhere to globalization, multilateral trade and the multilateral economic system, such as China, to maintain the certainty of global trade and the multilateral economic system.
In addition, Singapore has felt the threat from the great power strategic competition between China and the US on issues like trade and the South China Sea. It is a new situation confronting Singapore and other countries in implementing the “balance of powers strategy.” Balakrishnan said in his speech that the protracted US-China trade talks have created great uncertainty and volatility for markets of Southeast Asian countries and any disruption of global trade will have a disproportionate impact on them. Now, Singapore has attached more importance to constructive cooperation and dialogue between China and the US on the level of global norms and international order.
The author is a senior researcher at the Charhar Institute, and director of China-ASEAN Maritime Security Studies Center at Guangxi University for Nationalities. [email protected]