In November, Singapore hosted a visit by Chinese president Xi Jinping. Notwithstanding the conclusion of several bilateral agreements, the spotlight invariably focused on Xi’s comments on the South China Sea, where he reiterated China’s commitment to freedom of navigation and the peaceful resolution of the South China Sea disputes.  Xi’s assurances were timely given regional consternation at China’s ambitions driving massive land reclamation projects in the disputed area. The following month, Singapore’s defense minister, Ng Eng Hen, and his U.S. counterpart, Ashton Carter, signed an Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) which aimed to further deepen an already strong bilateral defense relationship. Among other things, the EDCA provided for U.S. P-8 surveillance flights to be flown out of the island-state. While the South China Sea was not mentioned explicitly, analysts have inferred the P-8 will likely operate in that domain. How should these two developments be understood in the broader context of regional geostrategic trends?

Singapore is not a claimant in the South China Sea disputes, and has consistently maintained its position that the disputes themselves can only be resolved by the various claimant states. This does not mean however, that the island-state has no interest in the South China Sea. As a trading nation heavily reliant on maritime commerce, Singapore has taken a keen interest in the South China Sea, and its leaders have voiced concern for how the situation has deteriorated in recent years. Singapore is also mindful of the fact that while the South China Sea is located geographically at the heart of Southeast Asia, it has become an arena of growing contestation between the United States and China. On that score, the Sino-U.S. bilateral relationship has arguably become one of the most, if not the most, consequential component of the strategic equation in the South China Sea and by extension, regional security in Southeast Asia.

By virtue of being one of the most open economies in the world, Singapore is inherently vulnerable to fluctuations in the global economy. One geostrategic implication of this fact of life is simply that any downturn in relations between the two largest economies – the United States and China – would doubtless have detrimental effects for the island-state. By dint of this reality, for Singapore stable relations between the United States and China is sine qua non for regional security. At the same time, a common refrain in Singapore policy circles is that the island-state does not want to have to choose between the two powers. What this means is that against the backdrop of an increasingly uncertain strategic environment and a Sino-U.S. relationship that vacillates between cooperation and competition, Singapore has no choice but to tread a careful line so as to strike a balance between the two major powers; not so much in terms of the academic abstractions of balance of power theory, but as a policy imperative. This is something that officeholders and decisionmakers in Singapore are acutely aware of, meaning that no effort has been spared to foster strong bilateral relations with both powers, or even to make modest attempts to facilitate the deepening of understanding of both toward each other.

The centrality of the U.S. forward presence in Asia has long been acknowledged by Singapore to be integral to regional stability in how it served as a countervailing force to Soviet and Chinese ambitions during the Cold War, managed the prospects (and potential pitfalls) of Japanese re-militarization, and provided the conditions for economic growth and development. While Singapore has never been a formal alliance partner of the United States, relations between the two countries have always been close. Singapore was a firm supporter of the U.S. presence in the region during the Cold War, expressed most vividly in the latter’s involvement in the Vietnam War at considerable cost. Amid the changes that has swept through the region since the end of the Cold War, that objective of facilitating an American presence in Southeast Asia has remained a consistent policy theme.

At the same time, Singapore has viewed China’s peaceful rise to prosperity as crucial for its, and the region’s, interests on at least three counts. First, Chinese prosperity will doubtless have a positive spillover effect for the rest of the region.  Second, from a strategic perspective, a weakened China could pose major security threats to the region. As former prime minister Goh Chok Tong once vividly portrayed, “a prosperous and globally integrated China is in all our interests. The alternative of a poor and isolated China will be like having sixty North Koreas at our doorstep. It will pose challenges without the opportunities.” Finally, Singapore’s leaders are fully aware that growing Chinese influence in Southeast Asia is an inescapable reality, and hence a key objective would be to do whatever they can to nudge China to wield this influence in ways that would advance the cause of regional stability and economic progress. Nevertheless, while ties with China have been on an upswing in the last two decades, Singapore’s leaders are also cognizant of the unsettling effects of China’s weighty assertiveness, particularly if it perceives itself to be provoked. This was brought home when Beijing reacted strongly to then-deputy prime minister Lee Hsien Loong’s unofficial visit to Taiwan in July 2004, and continues to find expression in hawkish Chinese statements and policies in the South China Sea.

On the South China Sea, treading a careful line between the United States and China is a difficult balance to bring off, particularly given the heat of the current climate as both powers escalate their activities in the region. But for a small state like Singapore constrained by size and resources, realistic policy alternatives are few and far between. To be sure, the island-state has managed adroitly to strike a tenable balance for several decades. Yet its policymakers are all too aware that at the end of the day the effectiveness of such a strategy ultimately rests on the ability of the United States and China to achieve an appreciation and accommodation of each other’s interests in the region, and this is something that Singapore or any other regional state has little, if any, influence over.

About Joseph Liow

Joseph Chinyong Liow is the Lee Kuan Yew Chair in Southeast Asia Studies and Senior Fellow Brookings Institution, and Dean and Professor of Comparative and International Politics at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.