No ambassador. No problem?

As US officials play down the prolonged stalemate regarding the confirmation of K.T. McFarland – a former top aide to US President Donald Trump – as ambassador to Singapore, some observers say the development raises further doubts over the coherence of America’s Asia policy.

The stalled appointment means a lower ranking charge d’affaires will, for the foreseeable future, lead the US embassy in Singapore, one of Washington’s closest strategic partners in the region.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill this week said Kathleen Troia “K.T.” McFarland’s nomination as ambassador to Singapore would be frozen over concerns she had been deceptive when questioned during the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election.

McFarland was briefly Trump’s deputy national security adviser before she left her post as part of a shake up triggered by the sacking of her boss Michael Flynn – the man currently at the centre of the Russian interference probe.

McFarland, 66, was subsequently formally nominated ambassador to Singapore by the president in June. She is likely to remain an unconfirmed nominee for now – joining nearly 200 other political appointees awaiting a final green light from the senate before taking up their positions.

The US political system requires 617 executive branch positions – ranging from cabinet secretaries to ambassadors and heads of domestic agencies – to go through the Senate confirmation process.

“Her nomination is frozen for a while until that gets worked out,” Bob Corker, the chairman of the senate foreign relations committee – which must rubber stamp presidential nominees – said on Tuesday.

The committee in September approved her nomination but the full senate has not voted on McFarland’s appointment.

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The controversy surrounds McFarland’s testimony to Congress that she was “not aware” of communications between Flynn and Sergei Kislyak, the former Russian ambassador in Washington.

That contradicted a New York Times report on Monday, which quoted a December 2016 email from McFarland indicating she was aware of contact between Flynn and Kislyak.

Camille Dawson, a spokeswoman for the US embassy in Singapore, told This Week in Asia there was no timeline for McFarland’s appointment, and that charges d’affaires Stephanie Syptak-Ramnath would continue to lead the mission.

Dawson said ties had remained “excellent” despite the vacant ambassadorship.

“The recent visit of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to Washington and President Donald Trump’s trip to Asia are clear signals that President Trump and his administration are committed to our continued engagement in Singapore and the region,” she said.


But some US-Singapore watchers said the delay had stymied efforts by Washington to assuage concerns that the Trump administration was committed to Asia despite the president’s “America First” mantra.

“Against the background of doubts about US strategy in the Asia Pacific – in particular the lack of a credible economic strategy – I do think it’s important for the Trump administration to get ambassadors out to key posts like Singapore as soon as possible,” said Matthew Goodman, a former Barack Obama foreign policy adviser now at the CSIS think tank in Washington.

“The current nominee does have some baggage in connection with the Russia issue, and that probably is slowing things down … it’s not clear to me if the administration has a Plan B at the moment,” Goodman said.

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Hugo Brennan, a Singapore-based political risk analyst with Verisk Maplecroft, said while ties between the two countries were solid – the tiny Lion City is the second largest Asian investor in the US – the lack of a permanent US envoy was “far from ideal for either side”.

“The Trump administration’s failure to fill the post will fuel a narrative of wavering US commitment to the region, particularly since Singapore holds the Asean chair in 2018,” Brennan said, referring to the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

David Adelman, who served as the ambassador to Singapore from 2010 to 2013, was less downcast.

The former diplomat, now a partner with US law firm Reed Smith, said “delayed arrival of newly appointed ambassadors is not uncommon when control of the White House changes from one political party to another”.

Steven Okun, a former chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Singapore, echoed this point, saying Adelman – an Obama appointee – took up his position 14 months after the former president was inaugurated.

There was a similar gap when Bill Clinton took over from his Republican presidential predecessor George H.W. Bush in 1993.

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The placement of political appointees as ambassador to Singapore – as opposed to career diplomats – puts the republic on the same diplomatic footing as Washington’s formal allies in Asia such as Japan and South Korea.

“The US business community works very closely with [the embassy] to continue increasing trade and investment between the two countries,” said Okun, a senior adviser at consulting firm McLarty Associates. “While a senate-confirmed ambassador can play a different role than one that is not so, there is no handicap for the business community due to a lack of a confirmed one.”