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The dangers of a Sino-American ‘war’ mentality

Posted By and on February 4, 2021 @ 13:00

Sino-American rivalry bodes ill for Singapore’s politics and security but the storm has a few silver linings.

A ‘tech rush’ of sorts is manifesting with Chinese technology giants like Alibaba, Tencent and Bytedance (the owner of TikTok) expanding their presence in Singapore, alongside their American competitors.

The shift in global value chains creates opportunities for Singapore to reach out to both sides of the Sino-American competition and attract and anchor investment across ASEAN as a non-China alternative. This is notwithstanding that the bifurcation of technology and supply chains would be detrimental to economic efficiency and potentially to the unity of ASEAN if different members align more with one side or another.

The motivating factors for these shifts are mainly geopolitical, and the danger remains that Singapore and other countries will be pressured to align with one side or another. If so, what will Singapore decide? This has been a central geopolitical concern in Singaporean thinking about its security and remained a live question throughout the past year.

Generally, Singapore worked hard to engage with former US president Donald Trump’s administration and, compared with many others in the region, is more like-minded about the need to balance against China.

Yet even to Singaporean observers, there have been many signs that suggest a trend of US disengagement—most apparent in the American leader’s absence at the annual East Asia Summit, hosted by ASEAN, since 2018. That trend is expected to be reversed to some degree under President Joe Biden.

In contrast, China’s engagement with the region has continued and indeed stepped up with the Belt and Road Initiative as well as with assistance in dealing with the pandemic. Singapore is actively participating in the financing of many BRI activities and more broadly as a hub for China’s growing business presence in ASEAN.

Singapore’s articulation of the Sino-American question is changing, even as it continues fundamentally to advocate for American engagement in the region. In a 2020 Foreign Affairs article on ‘The endangered Asian century’, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong acknowledged how China’s stake in the region has grown: ‘Increasingly, and quite understandably, China wants to protect and advance its interests abroad and secure what it sees as its rightful place in international affairs.’

The adjustment in comments on the South China Sea is noteworthy: statements made by Singapore immediately after the South China Sea arbitration in 2016 drew a stern reaction from Beijing; by comparison, when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo formalised support for the tribunal ruling rejecting China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea, Singapore and ASEAN were relatively muted.

More than a few countries in the region are rethinking their policies towards China and the US.

For Singapore, while fundamentals remain in place, nuances may be discerned and there’s considerable debate and divergence among prominent former diplomats and public intellectuals.

Singapore’s fundamental position is that countries shouldn’t be forced to choose one side or the other, linked to an emphasis on the importance of an open regional architecture, in which influence is never exclusive and deepening ties with one does not mean going against the other.

The ability to engage multilaterally has worked in a rules-based international order that has helped small and middle powers to thrive. There’s concern that this multilateral system is fragmenting—and ironically because of actions taken by the US, which has been the maker and mainstay of that order.

Many in Singapore remain cautious about talk of a ‘Cold War 2.0’; while conflicts didn’t occur on Soviet Union or American soil, proxy conflicts were found in the Asia–Pacific theatre.

Even short of war, the dangers of a war mentality applied to Sino-American competition are manifold. They include a legitimation of breaking the normal rules so that it’s only power and might that matter, the forcing of an either/or choice in relations, and the weakening of international institutions.

Singapore has been watchful over the undermining of the Paris climate agreement, and responded by stepping up commitments to address climate change in tandem with partners. Similarly, the weakening of the World Trade Organization and the World Health Organization are major concerns. With the weakening of the WTO, Singapore has joined in the ‘multi-party interim appeal arbitration arrangement’ to the WTO—a coalition that is broad but which in Asia initially includes only China, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand.

In the WHO context, Singapore is notably involved in COVAX—a global vaccine initiative to distribute 2 billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines around the world by the end of this year. These efforts point to a wider strategic response that Singapore is making in the current security context: to reach out to and work with other non-great powers, especially ASEAN and Asian partners (with continuing ties with Japan and India and an uptick in engagement with South Korea), as well as the European Union and others further afield.

Most analysis in Singapore points to the clear bipartisan support for the US to continue to be tough on China. In this regard, 2020 was a critical year for the broader re-examination of Singapore’s relations with both the US and China, and what Singapore and other countries can and should do.

The pandemic has sharpened that awareness and accelerated the trends. Singapore can wish but can’t directly improve the US and China relationship. But it has sought to increase its abilities to secure its own position if relations continue to deteriorate. This is not only in dealing with the two great powers, but also in its efforts for regional community, a rules-based international order and working with other countries.

These efforts are set in the context of avoiding a ‘war’ mentality, and the need to build consistent and steadfast engagement with other countries, taking a multilateral approach across a broad range of issues, especially in recovering and reconnecting in the wake of the pandemic.

For the security not only of Singapore but of many of the countries caught between the US and China, there’s nothing more, and nothing less, to be done.

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[1] reversed: https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/International-relations/Biden-s-Asia-policy/ASEAN-c%5b…%5dIwAR2T7wujY0JBYC2XJRbQLgs839VpgXAz3GFFVCTU-RbsrQ4SFAJsFJysa3o

[2] ‘The endangered Asian century’: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/asia/2020-06-04/lee-hsien-loong-endangered-asian-century