Singapore Straddles the Fence With U.S. and China

Singapore Straddles the Fence With U.S. and China

Friday, 10 February 2012

Media Type
The Wall Street Journal (Online)

When Singapore’s foreign minister visited Washington this past week, he welcomed and even urged deeper U.S. engagement in the region with stronger economic, diplomatic and military ties – a sign that Singapore appears to support America’s recent pivot towards Asia following years of focusing on conflicts in the Middle East.

But at the tail end of his first visit to the U.S. in his new ministerial role, Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam offered some criticism and a warning: Anti-China rhetoric is a “mistake,” he said and will cause problems for the region.

“Americans should not underestimate the extent to which such rhetoric can spark reactions that create a new and unintended reality in the region,” said Mr. Shanmugam, also Singapore’s Minister for Law, speaking at Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Singapore Conference in Washington.

The U.S. has repeatedly applied pressure on China in recent years on issues ranging from the value of China’s currency to its assertiveness in the South China Sea, an area with overlapping claims from numerous Asian countries.

In Mr. Shanmugam’s speech, which focused on key developments in Asia and Singapore including American’s recent enthusiasm for re-engagement with Asia, he said the rise of China cannot be contained. “It is quite untenable to speak in terms of the ‘containment’ of China… (China) is determined to progress in all fields and take its rightful place in the community of nations,” he said, adding that American policy makers need to “accept and understand” this.

His comments are well-timed – Mr. Shanmugam left soon afterwards for Beijing, where he is now on his introductory visit to China as Singapore’s foreign minister. He had actually planned to visit China first, as his maiden introductory visit outside of Southeast Asia, but he could not because of scheduling problems.

Singapore, which is small and very conscious of its geopolitically-sensitive place in the world, has since the days of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew tried to court both the U.S. and China, staying careful not to take sides between the two, unlike many of its Southeast Asian counterparts.

That strategy has paid off, with Singapore benefiting from big investments with each country. China’s booming market received S$68 billion of Singapore’s overseas investments according to the latest data in 2010, while Singapore attracted some S$67 billion of foreign direct investment from the U.S. that year.

Still, analysts say that the recent diplomatic trips, timed so closely together – and just before China’s presumed next leader Xi Jinping makes his much-anticipated trip to the U.S. – show that Singapore is laboring hard to avoid a situation where it may have to pick sides between the two strategic and economic giants.

“What would be a nightmare, not only for Singapore but… larger countries in Southeast Asia, would be a situation in which it would have to choose between the U.S. and China,” said Asad-ul Iqbal Latif, a research fellow at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, adding that Singapore’s diplomatic strategy has been to welcome all existing and emerging powers – U.S., China, Japan and India.

He added that when it comes to dealing with China and the U.S., Singapore’s size actually gives it an advantage – America does not see it as an “ideological threat” or challenge, and China does not see Singapore as a “patronizing power.”

The Philippines, which is now exploring more opportunities for joint military cooperation with the U.S., has along with other Southeast Asian countries repeatedly found itself in spats with China over claims in the resource-rich South China Sea, an area Singapore is keen to keep open and peaceful, given its heavy economic reliance on seaborne trade throughout the region.

Analysts have joined Mr. Shanmugam in promoting a broader engagement between the U.S. and Southeast Asia rather than just a military one, arguing the U.S. can only maintain a powerful position in the region by showing it is interested in other issues, as well.

“Areas such as non-traditional security (and) humanitarian assistance are necessary if the U.S. wants to reach out to wide communities of people in the region,” said Benjamin Ho, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University.

During Mr. Shanmugam’s recent trip to Washington, the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding in education, which included plans for more cooperation in the teaching of math and science, and a joint master’s program between Columbia University’s Teachers College and Singapore’s National Institute of Education.

[Copyright 2008 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved
This copy is for your personal, non-commercial use only. Distribution and use of this material are governed by our Subscriber Agreement and by copyright law. For non-personal use or to order multiple copies, please contact Dow Jones Reprints at 1-800-843-0008 or visit]

Source: The Wall Street Journal (Online)