Between China and the US: New dynamics, new paths, same balance

01 May 2023

The Straits Times, 1 May 2023, Between China and the US: New dynamics, new paths, same balance
Whether it is Singapore, Asean or Europe, the desire is for balance between the rival superpowers.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had a very good official visit to China in March. It was notable for the access he received, the warm tone of the meetings and the open and substantive conversations.
PM Lee met the top four Chinese leaders from the Politburo Standing Committee, which is more than the usual. In addition to President Xi Jinping, he met Premier Li Qiang, National People’s Congress Chairman Zhao Leji and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference Chairman Wang Huning. He also met the party secretaries of Beijing, Guangdong and Hainan when he made stops there.
Singapore and China elevated their relationship to an “All-Round High-Quality and Future-Oriented Partnership”, and substantively concluded the China-Singapore Free Trade Agreement Subsequent Negotiations, which will open new opportunities for our businesses. The two countries agreed to further develop the New International Land-Sea Trade Corridor, deepen cooperation in areas such as the digital economy, green development, and finance, and restore air connectivity.
President Xi characterised China and Singapore’s cooperation as a “benchmark for other countries in the region”. He would have noted Singapore’s willingness to explore new areas for collaboration and set out a roadmap. He is aware that Singapore, like the other Asean countries, has repeatedly affirmed that it does not want to choose sides in the US-China sharpening disputes. Yet the Republic is not hesitant to step up to do more with China and speak candidly and objectively on the troubled great power relationship.
Singapore has demonstrated that not making a choice does not constrain the systematic development and deepening of a relationship with each side and is creatively seeking out new areas of cooperation.
China relations
This was an important visit to an important country and one that needed to be made. A visit to China was overdue. The pandemic disrupted the normal exchange of visits.
Since 2020, China had been engaging with Asean leaders virtually. In 2021 President Xi participated via video link in the special summit to commemorate the 30th Anniversary of Asean-China dialogue relations, which announced the establishment of the Asean-China Comprehensive Strategic Partnership. But there is no substitute for leaders to meet and speak in person to exchange views on developments globally and in the region.
China is a major account. It is Singapore’s largest trading partner and China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) investments in the region go through Singapore though we do not have a BRI infrastructure project ourselves.
Singapore is now one of the largest foreign investors in China. Many leading Singaporean corporations such as Raffles Medical Group, DBS, OCBC, UOB, CapitaLand and Keppel as well as SMEs, the backbone of our economy and the sector employing the most Singaporeans, do business in China.
President Xi said PM Lee was one of the most frequent visitors to China among foreign leaders. PM responded that he usually tries to visit China once a year.
Singapore has judiciously kept a balance in the relationship between China and the US. It reiterates frequently that it wants to be friends of both.
US relations
Singapore has a strategic and comprehensive relationship with the United States. We cooperate extensively with the US in defence, economics, sustainability, cyber security and, more recently, space collaboration.
Our defence cooperation began in 1990 when we offered facilities to the US at a time when it was abruptly asked to leave Subic Bay and Clark Air Base in the Philippines. Singapore had long spoken of the American presence in the region as contributing to peace and stability in the region. Singapore put its money where its mouth was.
Singapore was and is not a base for the US in Asia; it is a lily pad as the Pentagon later came to describe such locations in their larger strategy. That small presence expanded to cooperation in a Strategic Framework Agreement signed in 2005, covering all that was being done in ship repairs and maintenance including for aircraft carriers, but also counter-terrorism and intelligence exchange at a time of the spread of global terrorism. In 2013 the US deployed Littoral Combat Ships to Singapore on a rotational basis. Cyber security cooperation was initialled in 2021 and space collaboration in 2022.
Our bilateral Free Trade Agreement with the United States initiated in 2000 and negotiated in tandem with Chile, was a breakthrough at the time. It reignited US interest in doing trade deals which it had put aside. It may take a negotiation for a strategic FTA with Ukraine when the war is over to jump-start America’s interest in trade deals again!
Since President Joe Biden assumed office, PM Lee has met him in person three times. In October 2021 PM Lee met President Biden in Rome on the sidelines of the G-20 meeting, and twice in Washington: in March 2022 on a working visit, and again two months later. The second Washington meeting was together with other Asean leaders at the US-Asean Special Summit in May.
In fact the US was very active in 2021 and 2022, sending Vice-President Kamala Harris, Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and several other Cabinet secretaries to the region, including stops in Singapore.
The Biden Administration was out to show that notwithstanding the war in Ukraine, the US was not neglecting Asia and Asean. It was addressing the recurrent South-east Asian lament about the absence of high-level US political visits to the region. Presence matters. After all, 90 per cent of success is being there.
As a small state, our growth and prosperity are dependent on a stable external environment, which unsettlingly, we have very little power to shape. Within our limited abilities, we seek to add our voice to draw attention to the regional perspectives on the geopolitical competition. The countries in Asean hope the deteriorating relationship between the US and China will stabilise, with both sides eschewing initiatives that could result in the formation of blocs in Asia.
PM Lee at the Nikkei Forum in 2022 argued that “a more stable and less tense configuration is for the two powers to have overlapping circles of friends, and countries find it possible to have friends on both sides”. Indonesia came up with the concept of the Asean Outlook on the Indo-Pacific (AOIP) which puts the emphasis on inclusiveness.
Asean’s insistent emphasis on “inclusiveness” appears to have nudged some European countries to be more inclusive in their Indo-Pacific Strategy. The Biden Administration modified the Quad’s focus on security in response to Asean feedback, to offer cooperation in humanitarian and development assistance such as vaccines and healthcare. This helped to soften somewhat Asean’s attitudes towards the grouping.
A worrying direction
Right now, many countries including Asean member states are concerned with the direction of the US-China relationship. They fear legislation and regulation in the US targeting China could lead to a bifurcation of technologies and a decoupling of the world economy, a disastrous outcome that no country, especially small countries and medium-sized countries, can countenance. Worse, there is talk in both the US and in China that the countries are at the brink of war.
These same concerns are obviously in the minds of European leaders who are anxious to visit China again. The world’s second-largest economy cannot be ignored and China is seen to be a crucial player in the Ukraine war.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz went to Beijing in November 2022 with a group of German business leaders even before China shifted from its zero Covid-19 policy. President Emmanuel Macron visited China with a huge business delegation and left with clear ideas that France’s approach of “strategic autonomy” could lead to some differences in its position on China from the US.
Before European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s visit to China, she made an important speech on “de-risk but not decouple from China” as the economic strategy for Europe. After the visit, speaking before the European Parliament, she was more emphatic “that decoupling is clearly not viable, desirable or even practical for Europe”. She spoke of the need for Europe to define its own strategy on China which was firm and tough on economic de-risking. She noted that China had hardened its strategic posture and Europe should be prepared to deal with that.
What is clear is that whether it is Singapore, Asean or Europe, the desire for balance to secure the interests of one’s country is paramount. In this competitive and contentious geopolitical context, leaders seek to optimise their relationships with both superpowers.
Above all, through dialogue and working on initiatives together, they wish to convey to the US and China that the rest of the world deeply desire to avoid a sharp division and believe it is possible to find a path of co-existence at some level, difficult though this may be.
Chan Heng Chee is Ambassador-at-Large and Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities, Singapore University of Technology and Design.