As Asean chair, Singapore may find its warming ties with China turning frosty once more
Mark J. Valencia says however skilled its diplomacy, the challenge of trying to forge a code of conduct agreement between Asean and Beijing, while keeping its relations with both China and the US on an even keel, may prove too much for the Southeast Asian country
This year, Singapore will have two leadership roles in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. It will continue to serve as coordinator of the Asean-China dialogue, and, more importantly, it is this year’s Asean chair. The South China Sea imbroglio between Asean claimants – backed by the US – and China will be a principal issue to be managed during its term. This will put Singapore under considerable pressure from both China and the United States as they vie for political control of the region.
Some think Singapore is well positioned to balance, hedge and manoeuvre between the two powers on behalf of Asean. This may be so. But the job will be very difficult and failure may have longer-term adverse effects on Singapore’s relations with one or the other – or even both. Moreover, its reputation for balance and diplomatic skill may be tarnished.
China is concerned that Singapore will try to “internationalise” the South China Sea issues, which Beijing wants confined to the countries directly involved. The US wants the issue settled peacefully, according to the existing international rules and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. More to the point, Asean itself is split on the issues and is likely to remain so, despite Singapore’s best efforts to forge unity vis-à-vis that of China.
China has managed to garner some support from Brunei, Cambodia, Laos and the Philippines for its position that the South China Sea disputes should be negotiated by the countries directly concerned. However, the US, by strongly supporting the original Philippine position and that of Vietnam against China, has contributed to Asean disunity on this issue.
Singapore has felt China’s wrath before regarding its position on the South China Sea issues. In April 2016, Singapore criticised China for “meddling” in Asean’s internal affairs. China’s Vice-Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin responded that such misconceptions “are not beneficial to the Sino-Asean relationship and cooperation”. In September 2016, the People’s Daily said in an editorial that Singapore “has obviously taken sides over South China Sea issues while emphasising it does not”. China’s influential Global Times said that the special relationship between China and Singapore was being damaged by mistrust regarding the South China Sea issues.
It has become increasingly difficult for Singapore to argue that it is neutral between China and the US on the South China Sea. As part of an“enhanced defence relationship”, it hosts top-of-the-line littoral combat ships from the US as well as its P-8A intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance planes, which track China’s submarines. China occasionally intercepts US spy planes with jet fighters in what the U|S calls an “unsafe” manner.
Although Singapore does not claim any features and maritime area in the Spratlys, it does support a “rules-based international order”, which is US-speak for maintaining the status quo international system. This includes, first and foremost, the implementation of the July 2016 international arbitration decision against China’s claims, which China has rejected.
Singapore also frequently repeats the US mantra of protecting “freedom of navigation”. For the US, this means freedom to undertake surveillance probes in China’s exclusive economic zone. To Singapore, it means freedom of commercial navigation, which China has not hampered. This implicit conflation of the issues by Singapore plays to the US public diplomacy strategy and angers China.
This seeming tilt towards the US at China’s expense has created controversy in Singapore. China is Singapore’s largest trading partner and Singapore is China’s largest foreign investor. Perhaps mindful of this economic interdependence, Kishore Mahbubani – a former senior foreign ministry official and still one of Singapore’s most respected thinkers – has warned that Singapore could suffer negative consequences by publicly opposing China’s interests. His view was sharply criticised by serving senior Singapore diplomats and even Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong himself.
While more recent diplomatic manoeuvres have somewhat ameliorated Singapore-China tension, relations could still quickly unravel if Singapore is seen to be siding with the US against China. Indeed, Prime Minister Lee tried to pre-empt this impression of favouritism by saying that Singapore would do its best “to be an honest broker” dealing straight with all parties, despite each wanting it to side more with it.
But he has also said that Singapore supports “the roles America has played in the Asia-Pacific” and “hopes the US will keep doing this, even as China’s influence grows”. This will be an increasingly shaky diplomatic tightrope to walk.
On top of all this, Singapore will have the almost impossible task of getting Asean and China to agree to a binding, robust code of conduct for the South China Sea. Agreement on such a code is highly unlikely. Not only is Asean itself divided – and Asean and China far apart on key aspects like geographic coverage and enforceability – but it has also become the nexus of a behind-the-scenes tug of war between China and the US. China wants a loose, ambiguous code and the US wants a binding, enforceable one.
Singapore certainly has its work cut out. The harder it pushes in one direction or the other, the more blowback it is likely to suffer from those unhappy with its direction. While some see this as a great opportunity for Singapore to demonstrate its diplomatic mettle, it could become the proverbial albatross around its diplomatic neck.
Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China