Is Singapore playing both sides in the South China Sea?

Myanmar's State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chano-cha, Vietnam's Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, U.S President Barack Obama, Laos Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith, Philippines Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay, Brunei's Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen, Indonesia's President Joko Widodo and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak pose for photo during ASEAN-U.S. Summit in Vientiane, Laos September 8, 2016. Jorge Silva, Reuters

Singapore has attended a meeting between ASEAN and US defence ministers in regards to arising conflicts in the South China Sea, while maintaining its neutrality in the South China Sea conflict. Moreover, China has claimed Singapore is playing both sides in the conflict, and stresses that it should pick a side, and preferably one aligned with Chinese interests. 

By Rasa Sarwari

In the past month Ng Eng Hen, Singapore’s defence minister has been outspoken in his country’s stance on the conflict in the South China Sea. Minister Ng has stated that the skirmishes happening within the South China Sea are due to non-military vessels, which are encroaching into disputed waters.

Subsequently, last month Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen accompanied other defence ministers from South East Asian countries to Hawaii, where the ASEAN defence ministers discussed with their American counterparts about regional security within the Asia-Pacific region.

Is Singapore aligning with ASEAN states and the US?

During the meeting Singapore aligned itself with other ASEAN nations and the US, in cautioning against the use of fishing vessels and coast guard vessels in order to affirm territorial claims in the South China Sea, as the latter tactic may lead to clashes.

Accordingly, Ng Eng Hen stressed that conflict in the South China Sea “may have, in fact, very little to do with military ships … but you may have incidents arising from fishing ships, you may have incidents arising from white ships … whatever colour ships they are, they can precipitate incidents”.

Nonetheless, using non-military vessels to affirm territorial claims is the main tactic used by China throughout the South China Sea, as Chinese vessels have repeatedly chased the ships of other nations away from islands and shoals that it claims.

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, also pointed out the importance of the South China Sea during the meeting, as it’s a vital trade route which carries over $5 Trillion USD worth of commodities every year, thus avoiding conflict in the region is integral to international trade and many local economies in the region.

Ng Eng Hen has stated Singapore is only “interested in the South China Sea because it is a major shipping route, and a lot of economies depend on it … [and] we think that uncertainty may lead to incidents”.

Since Singapore doesn’t have any claims in the South China Sea, Ng Eng Hen affirmed China wasn’t a threat to his country; however he called for a calming of tensions between China and ASEAN nations who have claims in the South China Sea.

China and Singapore spat

Since The Hague’s court of Arbitration ruled on July 12 that China cannot lay claim to large parts of the South China Sea, numerous ASEAN nations have taken the ruling as proof of their rightful claim over China in the dispute.

Accordingly, last month The Global Times published an article that accused Singapore of wanting to include the Philippines’ claim on the South China Sea, in the final statement of the Non-Aligned Movement summit, in Venezuela.

The Global Times is associated to The People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of China’s ruling Communist party, meaning the article was an indirect accusation by the Chinese communist party.

In response to the allegations made by The Global Times, Singapore’s envoy to China denied the allegations, and sent two letters to the paper’s editor in chief denying the claims.

The controversy of this issue isn’t due to Singapore pressing the Philippines’ claim; rather it is whether or not Singapore genuinely wanted to and supports the Philippines’ claim.

China’s offer to Singapore

Though Singapore seems to be taking a neutral stance in the South China Sea, China sees Singapore’s stance differently.

China believes that Singapore is playing both sides, as it has attended meetings between US and ASEAN defence Ministers, while maintaining close economic ties and diplomatic ties with China, even praising the 67th anniversary of the communist revolution in China late last month.

Additionally, China’s leaders have maintained a special relationship with Singapore, from the time of Mao Zedong to current President Xi Jinping.

Last month during the G20 summit in China, Xi Jinping told Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong that Sino-Singapore relations were of the upmost importance, more so than any other ASEAN state.

Subsequently, due to China giving favour to Singapore, Chinese official have wanted Singapore to use their influence in ASEAN to help resolve disputes between China and other South East Asian claimant states in the South China Sea.

Despite its small size and population, Singapore is an economic powerhouse in South East Asia, accordingly Singapore has significant influence in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), allowing it to act as a as a mediator between regional powers.

Singapore has often been approached by larger and more powerful states, who have wanted to coerce the small city state into taking a foreign policy which favours their agenda.

However, if Singapore were to give into the demands of the United States, China or larger states in ASEAN, it would slowly lose its neutral status and autonomy. Thus, despite being a small state Singapore has remained on the fence, in order to avoid having to consent to any other state to act as its “big brother”.