Singapore’s perilous dance with the USA
Singapore’s diplomacy and dance in the world stage suffered a double whammy with the election of Duterte and Donald Trump as presidents. Duterte’s refusal to play the role of American barking dog scuttled a well choreographed conspiracy led by the Americans and the Japanese and supported by the Little USAs against China. The game was to badmouth China, strangle its activities in the South China Sea and the containment of China in the international arena.
And then came Donald Trump who has pledged to drop the TPP, a pet peeve of Singapore as if its whole economy and future depended on it. If this is so, this would really be troubling time for Singapore as the last hope for economic recovery in a sagging economy would see its last flicker of light snuffed out by Trump.
What should Singapore do, send its two most vocal and powerful diplomats to Washington, to tell Trump how good the TPP is to the Americans? And add to that, to tell the Americans how good and useful Singapore has been to the USA and its pivot to Asia, and how important a role Singapore has or had played in support of American political and military actions everywhere, in particular the wars in the Middle East?
The raising of Singapore’s relationship with the US to a strategic partnership level, wonder what that means, culminating in a White House dinner in honour of the PM by Obama, reached an euphoric state with Singaporeans feeling so proud of the achievement and honour bestowed to their PM. Unlike in Malaysia, there is no charge or allegation of Singapore being ‘sold off’ to the Americans. In Malaysia, the opposition accused the govt of a ‘sell off’ to Chinese interests with the pivot or tilt towards China. The Channel 8 Singaporeans are not feeling uneasy and did not think that their interests have been sold out by the Channel 5 Singaporeans to the USA.
To be sure, it would be a mistake to cast Singapore’s cosy relations with the US as a zero sum game in the game of big power politics as doing so would ignore the deep fundamental relationship between Singapore and Beijing. There are strong historical people to people relationship as well as newly built economic partnership and Singapore’s support of the AIIB and OBOR.
While the US believed in a strong and constructive relationship with China, the same logic should apply to Singapore having a strong relationship with China and the USA.
The implications of Hsien Loong’s visit to the US, to Japan, India and Australia and how would these impact on the viability of the TPP and the American pivot to Asia would only come to light after Trump took office in a few months down the line. Would it bear fruits or would the fruit be still born is yet to tell. With no due disrespect, the trips by Hsien Loong would not have the same impact as that of LKY in his time but more a continuation of what LKY had paved in the past, a continuation of LKY’s legacy.
The elevation of Singapore US relations to a new high is not without challenges and risks for the two countries. Did the Americans learn anything from their fiasco with the Philippines, with poking in the domestic affairs of Thailand and Malaysia that have backfired? The increasing profile and meddling of the Americans in the SCS would not only come under scrutiny but would only raise tension that sensible Asean states would not want as it would destabilize the region. Many Asean countries have seen what and how the Americans were doing behind closed doors to agitate the Asean countries to go against China in the SCS. This kind of offensive meddling of Asean and regional affairs must have raised eyebrows and caution among the Asean states as to what the Evil Empire is capable of doing and has been doing all these years.
The Americans are jumping into the region to exploit the overlapping island claims by China and some Asean states, to stoke the fire to benefit from the tension and counter claims. Their attempt to front up for the Philippines had hit a blank wall and similarly facing the same fate with the other Asean claimant states.
In this context, the close relations between Singapore and the USA could backfire and become a liability when the Americans failed in what they wanted to do, and with Trump coming into the picture, the adventure of American intervention in the SCS as well as the TPP to contain China would simply fall flat. It would be an ironic twist if Singapore has to turn towards China to rebuild ties when the USA under Trump turns isolationist.
While the English educated Straits born are still thinking that they are in charge and could ignore the Chinese educated and those that still have favourable views of China, they really did not have a clue how these groups, the so called Channel 8 Singaporeans really think with the leaning towards the US and less friendly towards China. This could be a potential crisis awaiting to happen with the Americans pushing too hard in the SCS leading to open hostility and forcing the Channel 8 Singaporeans to take sides. Would the ruling govt still be able to count on the support of the Channel 8 people that form the bulk of its political base?
While the ascendency of Trump as the next American President takes centre stage and his isolationist policies take shape, how would these affect the military alliances with the Asean states and the relations with the Little USAs? Would Trump start to reverse the Asia pivot, reduce American military presence in the region? Or would there be a turnaround and Trump turns aggressive and pushing a fight with China in the SCS? How would the close military relationship between Singapore and the US play out in the big power rivalry? Would there be arm twisting by the Americans for Singapore to send military forces to patrol in the SCS or to support American provocations against China?
For sure, Hsien Loong has brought Singapore much closer to the USA than LKY whose legacy was to balance the interests of superpowers without having to take sides. The new Singapore US relationship is not necessary a bad thing as it is also Singapore’s policy to be friendly to all powers, except this time a bit more explicit in being more pro Americans. However, with the pushy Americans, at least under the Obama regime in his pivot to Asia, Singapore’s less than neutral position between China and the USA would become a distinct disadvantage when it comes to dealings with the Chinese and to clinch more economic deals especially in the OBOR Project. There would definitely be some expectations from the Americans as well as the Chinese for Singapore to toe the line with the sensitivity of the SCS situation and the competition for influence.
Singapore must be careful as the Americans could withhold the privileges for training grounds and military aids while Singapore still needs to secure China’s economic lifeline to solve the problems facing a slowing economy. Singapore is in a conundrum. How would Singapore maintain its political and strategic neutrality as it grows more dependent on American military support while becoming more dependent on China economically and for trade?