The Chinese are becoming more assertive about what they believe to be their inherent rights, and through a long line of small crises possibly involving US President Donald Trump, rather than a large and flagrant crisis, they will redefine China’s role in Asia. But where and how will the Lion City of Singapore be positioned in this realignment?
As China reacts defensively to Trump, other Asian nations must fluidly rebalance, continuously if necessary, to work seamlessly with China, while having open, beneficial and unhindered relations with the US to retain some independence in the resurrected trade tributary system in the Asian region.
We must consider that when it comes to the South China Sea and Taiwan, those that fall into line like the Philippines and Malaysia garner significant financial support. China embarked on a charm offensive in the autumn and winter of 2016, aiming at Malaysia, which led to the signing of 14 cooperation pacts worth US$20.8 billion, including a major defense deal, and another significant victory securing Malaysian promises to handle South China Sea disputes bilaterally.
And why wouldn’t members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) reshuffle? Beijing has not condemned Rodrigo Duterte and the drug-related killings attributed to his domestic policies in the Philippines, nor has it excluded Malaysia from Chinese liquidity for investment despite the 1MDB (1Malaysia Development Berhad) scandal. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has been shredded, its economic links and chains severed, and China is the economic powerhouse with a large demography that does not require cost-plus agreements and (for the most part) military bases in order to initiate and maintain trade.
The Chinese use mutual infrastructural development and industry as their allure. The Filipinos have seen no end to their poverty from hosting US military bases, so the shift inward to China is understandable: Try something new.
However, just as China has been wooing Malaysia and the Philippines, among others, it has been simultaneously dealing with Singapore in a cool manner. Why?
A Lion saunters where it wants
Unlike some other Asean states, Singapore is a powerful trading centre, manages an advanced economy, enjoys excellent relations with many nations, and has a selectively neutral foreign policy combined with many international security relationships across the world. Therefore Singapore is not as malleable to Chinese interests as other Asean members. China wants the Lion City to submit, but Chinese economic statecraft has been relatively unsuccessful in undermining Singaporean resilience thus far.
I can see China’s perspective. Walking through Orchard Street in Singapore, I got a taste for the multicultural, metropolitan city with an Indian influence and English-speaking heritage; there is less Chinese influence and a more international miasma.
This lack of economic dependence on China and neutral foreign policy rile Beijing, which became overtly apparent when Singaporean infantry carrier vehicles were detained in Hong Kong last November 23. The seizure of these military ICVs was the perfect opportunity to reaffirm Beijing’s interests regarding Taiwan to its neighbors, and as a warning to Singapore to re-evaluate its policy positions, including the Lion’s friendship with fellow Asian feline economy Taiwan, and with the US.
Singapore has a long history of cooperation with Taipei (something Beijing would rather discourage), and Taiwanese military personnel served in key positions in the early days of the Singapore Armed Forces, including chiefs of the air force and the navy. Beijing offered Hainan island as a training facility for Singapore to derail annual exercises under Project Starlight in Taiwan, but Singapore declined.
Beijing has never made an issue of the military friendship between Taiwan and Singapore, but Trump’s threats opened that blind eye. Now, with all this Trumpaphobia in China causing an unprecedented capital exodus to occur and challenging its long-held territorial claims to Taiwan, Beijing is taking a new approach to Southeast Asia. This fresh stance is more expressive of China’s displeasure with its Asean neighbors in areas involving a tug-of-war between Beijing and Washington in Asia, and the seizure of Singapore’s ICVs showed that Beijing will now further strangle Taiwan’s external relationships.
Simultaneously, China may perceive Singapore as a US ally rather than a neutral actor, which is bad news for Singapore. The Lion City’s role is especially complex in a region where many Asean countries have turned more inward toward Beijing, reforming the ancient tributary system of trade with China, and reducing their initial pro-US stance.
A ‘just good business’ relationship
The Sino-Singaporean relationship has been consistent, with Singapore even following the “One China” policy dogmatically during its 25 years of diplomatic relations with Beijing. In November 2015 China and Singapore signed an agreement on an “All-Round Cooperative Partnership Progressing with the Times”, calling for increased collaboration. Singapore is also the largest foreign investor in China, an early supporter of both the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, China’s alternative economic agreement to the now-imploded TPP.
Their good business relationship has some sticking points, though: the South China Sea islands. Singapore has an interest in that dispute despite not being a claimant to any of the islands; it has one of the biggest ports in the world and any dispute over freedom of navigation through the South China Sea will have profound repercussions on the Lion City. Singapore advocated for Asean to play a role in the resolving of disputes, but China is having success with its preferred bilateral negotiations.
The stickier sticking points of Sino-Singaporean relations include the enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the US leading to the deployment of US Navy P-8A Poseidon aircraft to Singapore. This agreement starts with aircraft that can be used for maritime surveillance patrols over the South China Sea, but it could move to stationing jet fighters.
So Singapore doesn’t want to dissuade a relationship that assures the bountiful Chinese treasure ship keeps docking in its ports, and China is weary of the cuts that come from a Lion’s claws.
China needs to let the Lion saunter; bluntly speaking, Singapore can squeeze the flow of Chinese imports, on which it is heavily dependent, through the Malacca Strait. The specter of goods seizures in Singapore’s ports scares China, and with the Americans strengthening their presence in the Lion City, and the New Silk Road not quite up and running yet, the Chinese are weary of the sauntering Lion. And Singapore isn’t some green cub when dealing with China; its late founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew even advised Taipei on how to deal with Beijing for more than two decades.
Singapore will continue to cooperate with Taiwan (after signing a trade agreement with Taipei in 2013) and the US, and is positioned as a important future mediator between Taipei and Beijing regarding reunification and becoming a Special Administrative Region after Presidents Xi Jinping of the mainland and Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan met in Singapore in 2015. Beijing needs Singapore’s influence over Taipei for such future negotiations to succeed.
Beijing could ostracize Singapore from Chinese investment, and seeing its neighbors flourish could force Singapore into a compromise regarding its independent leaning between the US and China. However, Singaporean investment and economical prowess are desired in the AIIB, and more than likely, Singapore is going to remain aloof, and retain its unique balance within Asean.
As China redefines Asia, Singapore may redefine what it means to reap the rewards of the Chinese treasure boat, and yet as all lions do, keep on sauntering independently instead of paying tribute to China as in ages past.