Singapore recently began its tenure as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) for 2018, inaugurating what observers believe will be a critical year for the 10-member regional grouping.
The city-state presides over the bloc’s rotating chairmanship against a backdrop of divisive regional geopolitics, complex security challenges and fraying group cohesion as members are increasingly viewed as either aligned with or opposed to China’s strategic ambitions in the South China Sea.
Singapore, one of Asean’s six original founders with a vision to contain the spread of communism in Southeast Asia, has historically been a linchpin of the grouping. But the rich island nation must now balance increasingly complex intra-bloc dynamics while steering sensitive regional discussions with a perceived as even-hand.
While Asean operates on a consensus basis, the annually rotating leadership has the prerogative to set agendas that shape multilateral engagements. Duties involve chairing and facilitating official meetings, tabling new initiatives and serving as group spokesperson. The chair may also veto and unilaterally issue statements should serious divisions occur among member states.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has identified Singapore’s chairmanship as promoting a “rules-based order” capable of effectively addressing regional security challenges as well as pushing ahead with regional economic integration and projects aimed at enhancing free-trade multilateralism and economic connectivity.
The city-state has also emphasized deliverables related to e-commerce and digital technologies during its chairmanship year, though visions of an Asean network of smart cities are mainly aspirational. Asymmetric economic development throughout Asean is the most immediate impediment to deeper regional integration.
The bigger challenge will be navigating big-power rivalries and thorny disputes of which Asean, as a collective entity, does not hold a shared perspective. A lack of consensus on issues ranging from maritime disputes in the South China Sea to Myanmar’s ill-treatment of its Rohingya Muslim minority has recently come to the fore.
Critics have voiced concerns of organizational atrophy and questioned the relevance of the bloc in lieu of member states’ domestic priorities superseding consensus. Premier Lee made efforts to address these criticisms at Asean’s summit in Manila last November, saying the grouping must maintain “unity and credibility” on regional and global issues.
Singapore is perhaps the best bloc candidate to forge a common approach to contentious issues. Still, the city state’s political agenda – Lee’s implication of “credibility” through “unity” – implies a balancing act writ large, not unlike its own national strategy of counterbalancing relations between the United States and China.
While it has traditionally maintained amicable relations with Washington and Beijing, Singapore’s balancing act has not been without fumbles. The city-state recently faced uneasy ties with China’s leadership as a rebuke for Singapore’s stance on the South China Sea disputes, viewed by Beijing as indicative of a pro-American orientation.
Chinese foreign ministry officials have in the past said Singapore should refrain from comment as a non-claimant state.
Lee, a persistent advocate of the US’ security presence in the Asia-Pacific, visited China last September ostensibly to normalize ties and align interests ahead of Singapore’s ascension as Asean’s chair. Some observers saw the visit as a diplomatic reset, though it’s not clear yet that Beijing views Singapore as neutral between China and the US.
Singapore’s apparent intent to develop a common approach to issues where Asean has spilt indicates the South China Sea territorial disputes will be high on its agenda. Beijing will no doubt keep a close watch over the city-state’s position as bloc chair and will be sensitive to any attempts to move the grouping from the favorable stance on China taken last year under the Philippines’ chairmanship.
Despite a 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in favor of the Philippines’ sovereign rights vis-à-vis China to contested waters in the South China Sea, Manila has pursued a strategic realignment under President Rodrigo Duterte.
Many believe Duterte has soft-pedaled on China’s reclamation activities and militarization of disputed maritime features in exchange for massive economic incentives and closer bilateral ties.
Manila consistently refused to raise the disputes in multilateral fora and oversaw a joint statement as Asean chair that was even less critical of China than in previous years. The Philippine stance, previously unequivocal in its opposition to Beijing’s South China Sea claims, has come to resemble the positions of Cambodia and Laos, both non-claimants and aligned with China.
Duterte pushed back against US efforts to foster a multilateral approach to dispute resolution by echoing China’s calls for negotiations on a bilateral basis. The framework for a South China Sea Code of Conduct was finalized under Manila’s chairmanship, but was criticized as toothless by many for omitting dispute-settlement, sovereignty and maritime delimitation issues.
Some regard Duterte’s shift as a pragmatic response to the shifting balance of Chinese and American power projection in the region.
China has asserted itself more vigorously on the world stage under President Xi Jinping and is an indispensable trading partner of Asean states. It backs the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (RCEP), of which Asean is a key party, and funds ambitious development programs under the aegis of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).
Singapore’s leaders have long championed Washington as a reliable security partner whose benign presence in the region contributes to stability and prosperity. Though with the Donald Trump administration’s apparent disinterest in Asean, narrow focus on trade arrangements that benefit the US and no new free trade deal in the offing, that position has become less tenable.
“Political dynamics in Asia may ultimately compel Singapore to re-examine its long-held position on external affairs… Adjustments in US–China relations might turn Singapore’s fence-sitting from strategic advantage into cause for consternation,” writes Ja Ian Chong, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore.
Singapore has yet to signal a change of course amid these fast-changing dynamics. Lee, whose government is the incumbent coordinator for Asean-China dialogue relations, tellingly used his first statement as incoming Asean chair as a declaration of hope that Washington would continue to engage the region.
How the city-state negotiates the ongoing Sino-American rivalry could determine the organization’s sway over its own backyard. Singapore faces the challenge of being viewed as neutral among major powers, while also contending with Asean partners whose national interests and strategic positions are often better served by deference to China.
Also at play are concerns about Asean’s inability to contain the Rakhine crisis in Myanmar and wider communal violence that could ignite as identity politics become entrenched throughout the region. The continuing plight of the Rohingya sparked a diplomatic spat between Myanmar and Malaysia last year that may split the regional grouping on religious lines if left unresolved.
Security anxieties also persist following last year’s five-month siege by Islamic State-inspired militants of Marawi City in the southern Philippines. Duterte himself acknowledged the importance of military assistance from the US and arms and ammunition from China in defeating the internationally linked militants.
Fears of the group’s capacity to regroup and proliferate into a wider regional network continue to necessitate robust counterterrorism engagement with major powers. But competing national interests and strategic orientations will, despite Singapore’s best efforts, likely continue to undermine any notion of “Asean centrality.”
“It is important for Asean to develop a policy towards the big players which reflects their independence,” Chandra Muzaffar, a Malaysian political scientist, told Asia Times. “Asean states should be neither pro-China nor pro-US. They should be pro-themselves.”