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Singapore’s Low-Profile Diplomacy

The Superpower Balancing Act


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.



The Superpower Balancing Act

By Elaine Huang
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 613 )

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 threat of being marginalized, and it is thinking how to counter it.

“Seeing the possibility that the Kra Canal could be built, Singapore spent more than a million Singapore dollars to research the problem and came up with two solutions. First, invest in ports on routes to the Middle East and Europe that Singapore shippers could be blocked from by the Kra Canal development, and second study preferential measures for the port of Singapore in the future. These are both long-term plans,” says Tan Khee Giap, the co-director of the Asia Competitiveness Institute at National University of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

Many outside observers have the mistaken impression that Singapore’s relations with other ASEAN member are not as close as with China and the United States, even as ASEAN has emerged. In fact, pragmatic Singapore has followed a long-term regional strategy involving the export of soft power, something Taiwan might want to consider as part of its “New Southbound Policy” to build closer ties with Southeast Asia.

“Singapore does not seek attention. It acts pragmatically rather than beating the drums when it makes a move,” observes Tan, who was born in Malaysia but now resides in Singapore. “Singapore’s role is to give ASEAN countries ideas.”

In terms of investment, Singapore has been the biggest investor among ASEAN countries for many years. The city-state also exports consulting and planning services for public infrastructure and industrial park projects, and its think tanks play important roles behind the scenes in the formation and implementation of policies throughout the region.

The Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), for example, located on the National University of Singapore campus, budgets a large sum annually for research on ASEAN. The concept of the ASEAN + 6 Economic Partnership (a regional framework that also includes Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea) originated at the institute.

In another initiative, Singapore has long promoted programs under which officials from ASEAN countries attend class in Singapore and then transplant advanced policies back in their home countries.

The programs, which cover such areas as the digitization of customs processes and government operations, “let ASEAN countries know that Singapore is a part of ASEAN,” says the Taiwan WTO Center’s Lee.

Singapore fully realizes that if other members of ASEAN grow, Singapore’s economy will inevitably benefit, Lee says.

Sanchita Basu Das, an ISEAS fellow sees Singapore’s approach as very smart because it recognizes it may not have a lot of land or resources but does have plenty of talent and can serve as a platform for providing innovative services.

At the same time, the city state has exported soft power through non-governmental organizations.

NGO Soft Power

One of those NGOs is Temasek Trust, the philanthropic arm of Singapore investment firm Temasek Holdings, which runs six philanthropic foundations. In 2016, Temasek Trust devoted more of its investment budget to Southeast Asia than any other region on projects involving education and talent development, urban planning and public policy management.

On education, a specialized Temasek team has worked with technical and vocational schools in Singapore to design programs and bring them to Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia and also design English courses for people in Indonesia and Cambodia.

Benedict Cheong, the director and CEO of Temasek Foundation International, explains that the foundation’s teams go to local communities in those countries and speak directly with organizations’ leaders to understand their needs and design plans with them.

He stressed that Temasek doesn’t try to replicate the same plan in every country; instead, it wants local organizations to take ownership of their own plans and brings the management of those organizations to Singapore for training. 

Exporting everything from political and economic policy to services, Singapore is not in this to brandish its image. What it seeks through its low-profile approach to the ASEAN region is pragmatically pursuing real benefits.

“The country is small, so it should serve as a platform, a hub, that people are willing to come to,” Cheong says.

And the city-state is doing just that, intent on developing its own ASEAN model founded on the projection of soft power to expand its influence and counter China’s rise.

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier