As ASEAN Chair, Will Singapore Manage to Balance US and China?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the ASEAN Summit.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the ASEAN Summit.(Photo Courtesy: Twitter/Narendra Modi)

As ASEAN Chair, Will Singapore Manage to Balance US and China?

Singapore, one of the success stories of the ASEAN region, has taken over as ASEAN Chair from Phillipines for the year 2018. The ASEAN city-state has been campaigning for economic integration as well as amicable resolution of issues which have divided the bloc.

Despite its small size, Singapore has been able to deftly balance complex relationships as a consequence of visionary leadership, backed by an efficient diplomatic network. In the current situation, however, there is more than one challenge for Singapore.

Also Read: Connectivity Far Away Even as We Near 2018’s India-Asean Summit

File photo of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
File photo of Chinese President Xi Jinping.
(Photo: Reuters)

Caught Between China and US

The first challenge for Singapore will be balancing relationships. It has to balance the relationship between US and China on one hand, and China and India on the other.

For long, the Southeast Asian city state has sought to balance ties between US and China – and has done so with great distinction. Only last month, Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, in an interview to CNBC remarked:

There are tensions between America and China, we will be asked to pick a side. It may not be directly, but you will get the message that ‘we would like you to be with us, and are you with us? If not, does that mean you’re against us?’ And that’s to put it gently.
Lee Hsien Loong, Prime Minister, Singapore

This is strongly borne by the close economic relations with US and China. Singapore is the second largest Asian investor in US, with investments in a number of areas, across a number of states. Singapore’s cumulative investment in US, as of 2016, was well above USD 70 billion, and in Asian countries, Singapore was only behind Japan.  Bilateral trade between both the countries too has witnessed a rise, ever since the free trade agreement was signed in 2004. It was estimated at USD 45 billion as of 2016.

Also Read: Nirmala Sitharaman’s ASEAN Summit Visit Is a Step Towards Manila

Accused of Toeing the American Line

Economic ties between Singapore and China are equally robust.

Bilateral trade between Singapore and China was estimated at over USD 65 billion (as of 2016), this accounts for nearly 13 percent of Singapore’s global trade.

It is also the second largest investor in China, with investments being well over USD 6 billion.

In recent times, however, China has accused Singapore of echoing the American line on the South China Sea, as well as One Belt One Road. China’s decision of not inviting Singapore’s Prime Minister Hsien Loong was seen as a backlash against this tilt towards the US. Singapore was represented by its National Development Minister Lawrence Wong.

In recent months, Singapore has been in damage control mode as it pitched strongly in favour of One Belt, One Road Initiative.

Prior to his visit to China, Singaporean prime minister in an interview to Xinhua, stated:

The initiative will help foster closer cooperation among China and its neighbouring countries as well as its trade partners in Europe, Asia and even Africa.

Will Singapore Help the Indian Cause?

Singapore has emerged as one of the largest foreign investors in 2015-2016 with FDI inflows estimated at nearly USD 14 billion. In 2016-2017, however, inflows dropped to less than USD 9 billion and Singapore was overtaken by Mauritius. The overall economic engagement is substantial, and a number of Singaporean companies are directly engaging with state governments.

A Singaporean consortium is working jointly with the Andhra Pradesh government for the development of  the state’s capital Amaravati (the earlier capital Hyderabad is now capital of Telangana). Similarly, on the strategic front, India has forged close relationships with the navies and militaries of both the countries working closely with each other.

It remains to be seen as to how Singapore pushes for a greater role for India in ASEAN, and how Beijing reacts to the same. It also remains to be seen whether any other ASEAN country, like Indonesia and Vietnam would join the Quad grouping.

Dealing with US Isolationism

The current US President has been more isolationist than his predecessors and this has caused discomfort within the ASEAN, since Beijing will have a free run in the region. Those countries who are wary of China are especially uncomfortable.

Singapore which has emerged as an important global hub and has benefitted immensely from globalisation, is not comfortable with the US President’s approach, and was critical of the US withdrawal from the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership).

Apart from Trump’s isolationism, his shifting stance on China too, would be a cause of worry for Singapore and other ASEAN members.

Speaking Up on the Rohingya Crisis

On contentious issues such as excesses against the Rohingyas, Singapore should take a stand without being obtrusive. Singapore has generally refrained from commenting on issues pertaining to human rights and civil liberties.

This is likely to create a divide not only within ASEAN, with countries like Malaysia and Indonesia having spoken up on the issue, but would also put Singapore at variance with the US, given the fact that during his recent visit, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson forcefully raised the Rohingya Issue.

In an address to the CSIS, Washington DC, he had stated:

World can’t just stand idly by and be witness to the atrocities that are being reported in the area.
Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State, US

During his visit to Myanmar, Tillerson highlighted the seriousness of the issue.

The key challenge for Singapore as the Chair of ASEAN will be accommodating not just differing viewpoints but also taking a clear stance on issues, something which it has refrained from, while seeking to punch above its weight. If it needs to distinguish itself from China, it cannot turn a blind eye to human rights abuse anywhere across the ASEAN region.

Apart from this, economic and geo-political developments in ASEAN will be driven by the behaviour of external powers like US and China. An isolationist and whimsical US, and an aggressive China, are not good news for the Indo-Pacific, and Singapore clearly has its task cut out as ASEAN Chair.

Also Read: How the Rohingya Crisis May Help Pakistan’s Cause in Bangladesh

(Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based Policy Analyst associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat. He can be reached @tridiveshsingh .This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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