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Singapore’s Low-Profile Diplomacy
The Superpower Balancing Act

China and the United States are battling for influence in Southeast Asia and the South China Sea. Sandwiched between the two, Singapore has kept its distance from both superpowers while fighting to stay competitive amid external threats.

Photos: CW

On November 13, China launched a new trade route that links western China to the Arabian Sea through the deep-sea port of Gwadar in southwestern Pakistan.

Coming on the heels of potential cooperation between China and Thailand to build the Kra Isthmus Canal, which would connect the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea, the opening of the Pakistan route represented another threat to Singapore’s status as a regional marine shipping hub.

The new trade route, and the Kra Canal if it becomes a reality, means that in the future China’s oil imports from the Middle East and goods traded with the European continent will no longer travel through the Strait of Malacca that connects the Indian Ocean and the Far East, in effect bypassing Singapore.
Of course, China’s moves are motivated by deeper strategic considerations – Beijing wants to use the new routes to break through American dominance of Pacific Ocean shipping lanes.

But with Singapore’s relations with China already stalled because of disputes in the South China Sea, the news of the new trade route only put Singapore and its economy mired in low growth further on the defensive.

Roy Lee, the deputy director of the Taiwan WTO Center under the Chung-Hua Institution for Economic Research, observes, however, that while Singapore has a mostly ethnic Chinese population, it is still an independent, sovereign country and will not easily buckle to superpower pressure.

“In the South China Sea dispute, Singapore’s public position fell in line with that of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states rather than with the stance of the U.S. alliance. It wanted to maintain good relations with neighbors like Malaysia and Indonesia,” Lee observes.

Quiet, Practical Approach

Singapore is the most advanced country in ASEAN, but faced with balancing threats from China and the U.S. and maintaining its role as a bridge for communications between the two, will it be able to preserve its status as a regional hub?

As China pushes to set the agenda on sea passage in international trade, Singapore faces the

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