Singapore gets what it wants: keeping powerful friends on the South China Sea

Source: U.S. Pacific Fleet’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license

The South China Sea issue plays heavy on the minds of diplomats across the ASEAN region, but Singapore plays a clever game to achieve its national interests. But as local alliances change it will need to adapt its approach. 

Editorial with inputs by Holly Reeves and Rasa Sarwari

Singaporean diplomats are highly educated, and very astute in achieving their nation’s strategic objectives. As such they tend to be very persistent in selling their claims to other ASEAN nations. On the difficult issue of the South China Sea, this approach is a stroke of brilliance.

These skilled negotiators will always chase Singapore’s best interests; sometimes pursuing a hidden agenda, and playing all sides to get what they need. You also see that Singapore has become a master of integrating its initiatives into ASEAN’s agenda, allowing them to successfully turn the overall position of ASEAN into a reflection of their own policy.

The best example of Singapore’s prowess is its successful persuasion of ASEAN countries to allow for a greater US presence in the region, as it believes the US would counterbalance China’s influence. Therefore, Singapore’s foreign policy – although well-intentioned – should not be taken at face value; and neither should its other friendly relations with other regional powers be easily understood.

Small state, big player

The island nation is a small country, with a small populace. However, what Singapore lacks in population and size it makes up for in its influence on the international community. China has always had closer relations with Singapore than any other ASEAN country, but this relationship comes reluctantly, the smaller nation wishes to stay out of the way of the region’s striving hegemon.

The two countries signed and implemented a free trade agreement in 2008, and bilateral relations have also developed rapidly in various fields. Accordingly, the small city state’s greatest achievement is not reflected in its foreign policy, but in its domestic economic development. But China’s reliance on Singapore as its closest partner in ASEAN is coming to an end as Beijing’s influence expands in Southeast Asia, allowing it to form closer relations with other regional powers, such as the Philippines.

Meanwhile, other diplomatic developments could be read as Singapore playing both sides. To balance China’s growing influence in the region, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong personally went to the United States this August to invite Obama to increase strategic investment in East Asia. Security cooperation between both countries has allowed the US Navy to deploy four LCS warships in Singapore. Moreover, in 2015, the two countries signed the “Agreement on Strengthening Defense Cooperation,” which further improved the strategic cooperation between the two nations.

Singapore has also actively supported the United States in joining the East Asia Summit, turning the key focus into a dialogue around the issue of China’s aggression in the South China Sea. That is a sea change from its original intention of discussing economic growth in the region and again shows the power of Singapore, and its friends, in regional politics.

The South China Sea

More widely on the big local issue of the South China Sea, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong declared Singapore as neutral in the sovereignty dispute; however, that does not mean he is not discussing it.  In fact, The Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xi Jin says Singapore has interfered too much in the controversial topic. If anything they have supported the Philippines, he says.

When the Hague Tribunal brought forth the verdict of the South China Sea’s arbitration, China failed to recognise the outcome, and instead continued to press its claims. And despite the regional friction, this caused Singapore has consistently taken a non-interventionist approach.  Accordingly, the small nation has not played any constructive role as a meditator of Chinese-ASEAN relations in addressing the South China Sea issue in recent years.

As to where their allegiances may actually lie, during a meeting between PM Lee Hsien Loong and President Obama in June of this year, the US was willing to spare no expense in ensuring closer Singaporean relations. In line with their shared agendas, both leaders stated that they “urge all parties to fully respect the legal and diplomatic process to reach a peaceful settlement of the South China Sea issue.”

And out on the water, the United States Navy deployed the P-8A Poseidon Maritime Surveillance Aircraft to Singapore for the first time in December 2015.  It is widely believed that the main task of this vessel is to survey China’s actions in the disputed area and provide intelligence to the United States on regional security. It was on mission for eight months, until August of this year.

A friend to all?

However, the US is not the only Chinese rival that Singapore has sought closer ties with; it has also committed to maintaining its close relations with Japan.  During a recent visit, PM Lee received the “state banquet” treatment from the Emperor of Japan, demonstrating Tokyo’s high regard for Singapore’s position in the region.

Moreover, both PM Lee Hsien Loong and Japan’s PM Shinzo Abe have a common outlook on the divisive territorial issue and both leaders “emphasise the importance of the South China Sea legal order,” to maintain regional stability. Subsequently, Japanese and Singaporean strategic cooperation has caused alarm among many Chinese officials, who see Singapore as playing all sides of this issue.

So what remains of Singapore as China’s key player? It may be time to rethink Sino-Singaporean relations since Xi Jinping is directly creating closer ties with other ASEAN countries, such as the Philippines. Many political analysts believe this shows the country may have been too confident in its importance to China’s regional diplomacy and did not expect the unprecedented friendly relations with regional powers like Duterte.

In the future, Singapore may still be one of China’s key partners in its Southeast Asian strategy, but it will not be the only one, as Beijing seeks to use one-to-one diplomacy to improve its relations with other ASEAN countries. As such Singapore may not be willing to get too close and instead look for a “balanced” but not “equilateral” policy between its many powerful friends.