Singapore is stuck in the middle between two superpowers

By Mason Quah

FOR many nations caught between two superpowers the ideal outcome is one where they don’t have to choose sides. This reasoning is a strong influence in how the city state will react to a Biden presidency.

“Singapore is a very realistic country, and I think we realise that we cannot change the world. Whether the United States is absolutely wonderful or absolutely difficult, we have to live with it and we have to get along with it,” says Kishore Mahbubani, former Singaporean diplomat with a long career of managing relations with the superpower.

From this perspective, the Trump presidency is at worst a frustrating four years for the nations that must cater to US interests either way. Biden will be easier largely in that he is less likely to rock the boat.

“We’re used to having ups and downs in our relations with the United States but we recognise that the United States is the most powerful country in the world, and the obligation is on Singapore to get along with the United States and they have no obligation to get along with us.”

There have been few times where Singapore has been responsible for worsening relations between the two nations, most notably the caning of US citizen Michael Fay in the mid-90s.

Being the first caning of an American citizen, the routine criminal case in Singapore saw intervention by then President Bill Clinton and other prominent US figures.

The highs in contrast easily outweigh the lows. The USSFTA, a 2003 free trade agreement between the US and Singapore allows a great amount of wealth and labour to be exchanged between the two nations with minimal tariffs or visa requirements.

With the amount that Singapore stands to gain as a US ally, there is no question to a continued cooperation where they are able to benefit.

“All major powers are difficult. The big lesson I learned when Singapore was on the UN security council is that when any major power, whether that’s the United States, China, UK, France or Russia, if they have to choose between their values and interests will choose their interests first.

“If their interests coincide with Singapore’s that will work very well for us. We are very realistic and very pragmatic in Singapore.”

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong worked with Donald Trump in 2019 to renew a defensive pact that provided the US air force and navy access to Singaporean bases. While the United States can be a difficult country to deal with there are few countries that can afford not to.  

The US is not the only such power that Singapore has to deal with in this way: While the United States made up 8.8 per cent of Singaporean exports, China makes up 13.2. The worst possible situation for Singapore is not for either superpower to see internal turmoil but for them to clash in a way that demands picking sides.

“Singapore will have a challenging time if relations with the United States and China get worse, there’s absolutely no question about that. Singapore is also one of the few countries where the leaders have spoken out about these difficulties.”

This comment refers to both speeches and articles written by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. The PM sees the greatest challenge to the widely predicted “Asian century” to be a potential decades long confrontation between the two superpowers, each trying to build a sphere of influence over countries that rely on both powers in order to to prosper.

Singapore is not alone in this position. Kishore sees the overwhelming position for smaller geopolitical powers is wanting to keep good relations with both superpowers even if the US and China are not friendly between each other.

Kishore Mahbubani explores these ideas in greater detail through his book “has China won?” published earlier this year.

Both superpowers hold flaws that make them tumultuous allies and trading partners and the seasoned diplomat has worked extensively with both to gain unique insights into the shape of their future relations and the potential outcomes that might be produced.

Featured Image: The White House @Flickr

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