Singapore’s big balancing act: the US vs China

Photo: Hans Splinter/CC BY-ND 2.0

The waters of the China-Singapore relationship have been muddied by a recent spat, but there is no reason to think that the nation’s decades-long balancing act between friends in the east and west is about to leave Prime Minister Lee’s government isolated.

By Tan Zhi Xin

China has spoken out in an unusual public reprimand of its sometime friend Singapore after officials in Hong Kong, at Beijing’s request, impounded nine armoured troop carriers that were on their way home from military exercises in Taiwan. In the following public statement, Chinese sources sharply reminded the Singapore leadership that official engagement with Taiwan was not appreciated.

This blip in relations comes as Singapore is caught in an awkward state of vulnerability. It has weakening Sino-Singapore ties on the one hand, and the anti-globalisation attitude of incoming United States (US) President Donald Trump on the other. So what is the best approach in the potentially challenging months to come?

For decades, Singapore has been trying to maintain a delicate “balance of power” in its dealings with China and the United States. To put it simply, it is trying to be economically pro-China and militarily pro-US, while remaining politically independent and culturally diverse. But Trump’s promises for inward-looking policies and China’s increasing impatience with Singapore give rise to a legitimate fear that it is only a matter of time before it is isolated by both sides. This, however, is unlikely.

Singapore: an important friend

To look at its connections with China, the Sino-Singapore relationship is deeply rooted in history. In fact, Deng Xiaoping looked to Singapore in its early years for inspiration as a useful developmental model. “Singapore’s social order is rather good. Its leaders exercise strict management. We should learn from their experience, and we should do a better job than they do” said Deng during his famous “southern tour.”

Today, China refers to Singapore as an “important partner and a special friend of China”, and has expressed its willingness to develop bilateral ties further. However, recent developments suggest that China might have come to view Singapore as a “vanguard of [the] anti-China coalition”. Singapore’s vocal support of the ruling by an international tribunal in The Hague, and strengthening of defence ties with the US by hosting US P8 Poseidon maritime spy planes annoyed China. And this latest dispute is merely a manifestation of China’s unhappiness.

But even with seemingly deteriorating ties, Sino-Singapore relations remain built on pragmatism. China became Singapore’s largest trade partner in 2014, while Singapore became China’s largest foreign investor for the first time in 2013. Currently, Singapore has multiple joint projects and two state-led projects with China. Singapore needs China as much as China needs Singapore, at least from an economics perspective.

National importance

As such, Singapore is determined to maintain its ties with its east Asian neighbour. Take for instance its attitude in the latest dispute; Singapore has tried to play down the spat and expressed its recognition of the One China principle. But at the same time, it also appears to be resolute in the face of what it perceives to be an intimidation on “matters of national importance.”

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishna said that it is important to not “let single incidents or even long-standing differences in perspective get in the way of a very important, fundamental account, which is what the relationship between China and Singapore is.” Granted there is an air of uncertainty and uneasiness clouding the recent Sino-Singapore relationship, but even at the height of the Cold War relations between the two nations survived.

As such, there is a reason to believe that pragmatism would overshadow, albeit not overcome, inherent differences and unhappiness. In other words, the fear that China would isolate Singapore because of the deteriorating ties is weak and unlikely to materialise, at least anytime soon.

Singapore and Trump

To look to America, outgoing President Barack Obama said Singapore was a “solid-rock partner”. He added that they had “shared interests (that) bring (the two countries) together in (the) common pursuit of a shared vision – a peaceful and prosperous Asia-Pacific and a more secure world”.

In other words, the US-Singapore relationship is governed more by national interests than politics. Prime Minister Lee echoed a similar viewpoint by noting that the strong ties have withstood many political changes. “Singapore’s own ties with the United States have remained steadfast through nine US presidents – five Republican and four Democratic – and three Singapore prime ministers,” he said. The issue at hand is whether would Trump’s administration undermine this relationship?

Undoubtedly, Trump’s coming government will put this link to the test. His “America first” attitude intends to reverse all of Obama’s concerted efforts in the last eight years to deepen ties with southeast Asia. And his vow to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) seems like the first step in pulling out of engagement with the region in general.

Bilateral ties

Although Singapore would have benefited from the TPP, it is also improbable that it would suffer greatly should Trump back away from it. The main reason for this is that while Trump perceives multilateral trade pacts with disdain, he is in favour of bilateral ties. Singapore is one of the few ASEAN countries to have separate bilateral trade relations with the US outside of the TPP.

Singapore is also a member of the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which would have a combined GDP of approximately $17.2 trillion – one-third of the world’s annual GDP. Given China’s willingness to invest overseas this adds to the argument that Singapore would be unlikely to end up in a disadvantageous position of being abandoned by both sides.

Another noteworthy issue is that of defence and security. Like many ASEAN countries, Singapore regards the US strategic presence in the region as a hedge against Chinese aggression, but Trump’s intention to wash its hands of allies in Asia gives China the green light to assert its hegemonic intentions.

Existing ties

This would have been disastrous to Singapore if it had not spent a good amount of effort in forging a good relationship with the US over the past few decades. Based on previous efforts and interactions, Defence Minister, Ng Eng Hen is confident about continued strong defence ties with the US, even under Trump’s administration.

“For the US, we are doing a lot with them, and for them – we welcome their planes and their ships through our airbases and Changi Naval Base, where there are a confluence and alignment of interests – for example, anti-terrorism.”

“We’ve served in Afghanistan, and now we are working towards diminishing Islamic State’s ability to radicalise Singaporeans here. We allow their Littoral Combat Ships passage through here. Recently we allowed their P-8s to also transit through here,” said Dr Ng. “So I would say that we’ve been doing a lot for our defence partners like the US. So I think on that score we’ve already been doing a lot, and I don’t see that as any reason it should diminish ties with the US,” he adds.

Trump is a businessman; he knows the basic principles of a cost-benefit analysis. As such, it is almost unimaginable that Trump would abandon Singapore when there are common interests and benefits to capitalise on. On the other hand, China is pragmatic in its policymaking, making it also inconceivable that it will isolate Singapore. For now, the balance remains in the island nation’s favour.