Next week, when Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong visits Washington, he will become the fourth Southeast Asian leader to meet President Donald Trump. This early engagement, to be followed next month by Presidential attendance at the East Asia Summit in the Philippines and the Asia-Pacific Economic Conference in Vietnam, is a very encouraging indication of continued American commitment to the Western Pacific.
When President Trump came into office, there was quite a bit of anxiety about his commitment to American alliances in Northeast Asia. The 2016 Presidential campaign was an extraordinarily contentious one. As a presidential candidate, Trump made statements about America’s Asia policy that raised concerns in Japan and South Korea, and among American military, and foreign policy experts. Ultimately, however, as time is showing, it is difficult to overlook U.S. allies in Japan and South Korea. They occupy too central a role in America’s foreign policy and force posture in the Pacific. There were more than enough people, including the Japanese Prime Minister himself, to help President Trump understand that, if he truly did not before taking office.
Focusing on Southeast Asia requires more subtle strategic awareness. There are small constituencies that speak for it in the American electorate and a relative handful of Southeast Asian experts in Washington to go to bat for U.S. interests there. Yet, despite this – and very much to its credit—the Trump Administration appears to appreciate its importance. The official statements from Southeast Asian engagements coming out of the White House, including the one announcing Prime Minister Lee’s visit, are replete with references to strategic priorities. That said, the President himself would be well-advised to take on board some of the finer points Prime Minister Lee will make about the strategic picture in the region and the American role in it.
Singapore is a small country with a highly developed economy. Its lack of strategic depth, its economic success, and the fact that it is a multi-ethnic Chinese-majority country, surrounded by countries with Chinese minorities, means it is vulnerable. As a result, leaders of Singapore are very carefully attuned to geopolitical disturbances. They do their best to contribute to stability. Singapore hosts critical U.S. naval logistics capabilities – a role they stepped into in the 1990’s when the U.S. and the Philippines failed to agree on terms that would keep them at Subic Bay. It constructed a naval base, Changi, deliberately designed to berth a U.S. aircraft carrier. And it accommodates the rotation of American littoral combat ships and P-8 patrol aircraft through Singaporean facilities.
On the diplomatic side of things, Singapore offers wise council in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and they maintain a very constructive, determinedly independent relationship with China. Accordingly, although they are quiet about it, American audiences in particular will appreciate that Singapore maintains the most positive—albeit, like the U.S., unofficial—relationship with Taiwan that Southeast Asia has on offer. This is worth mentioning because it points to the value Singapore places on the autonomy of its foreign policy. There would be no easier calculation for it than to jettison Taiwan, downgrade or rescind reciprocal representation, and end military exercises it has conducted there since 1975. It could kill its free trade agreement with Taiwan. Every other country in Southeast Asia—as well as the U.S.—have apparently calculated that an FTA with Taiwan is not worth inconveniencing Beijing.
On the face of it, Singapore’s interests in China dwarf anything it can accomplish with Taiwan. But what Singaporean leaders know is that if Beijing can dictate its policy on Taiwan, it will assume it can dictate other aspects of its policy, on the South China Sea, on its relationship with Japan, on military cooperation with the U.S., and on its positions in ASEAN.
So as high as the stakes are in Singapore’s relationship with China, its long-term investment in strategic priorities that contribute to regional stability and principles essential to its survival—like freedom of the seas—are more important. From a Singaporean perspective, it is the Chinese who will have to make the mental adjustment that allows the relationship to work as it does—and they are perfectly prepared to help them do so.
So, what messages is Prime Minister Lee likely to bring to Washington?
First, economics. Singapore has a free trade agreement with the U.S.; it also runs a trade deficit with it. So while trade balance is an indicator too broad to be of much use in any regard, at least in the case of Singapore, it will not distract from a discussion of the larger strategic imperative of American economic engagement. Prime Minster Lee warned the U.S. that a pullout from the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) would be a setback for its strategic interests in the region. With this decision already made, he is not likely to revisit this criticism. One hopes, however, that the Prime Minister will talk to the President about the options the region has for moving forward without the U.S. There is the real prospect of a TPP-11, an agreement modified to exclude the U.S—temporarily the Singaporeans hope. There is the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). There is China’s one-belt, one-road infrastructure project. Regarding the latter, there are signs that the Administration is coming to understand the significance of this, but it cannot beat something with nothing. TPP may be dead as far as the U.S. is concerned. These other initiatives are Asia’s plan B. The U.S. desperately needs a plan itself, something more encompassing than renegotiation of trade agreements and imposition of trade remedies.
Second, China. Singapore is very much interested in the trajectory of US-China relations. This is because leaders there understand the challenge that China presents the region. It does not see China’s rise as a “threat” or as a clash between Western and Confucian civilizations. It certainly will not subscribe to the U.S. waging an “economic war” with China—as some of President Trump’s supporters have advocated. Singapore sees the rise of China as a reality that must be managed. Beijing has presented the U.S. with some difficult decisions, on the South China Sea, for instance. And Singapore is both publicly and privately supportive of pushing back in areas like these where it threatens to overturn the regional order. Poor management of the relationship on the part of the United States, however, would also represent a danger to regional stability, and to Singapore. For these reasons, Singapore has an interest in helping American officials understand China in all its complexity. Expect the Prime Minister to appeal to President Trump’s better angels on matters related to China.
Third, North Korea. In one of the Trump Administration’s earliest efforts to reach out to the Southeast, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with ASEAN’s foreign ministers in Washington. The very real threat from North Korea’s nuclear weapons program was high on the agenda. Singapore appreciates that and has said so publicly. They can be trusted to comply with UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolutions regarding North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and cooperating with U.S. intelligence agencies and the UNSC’s Panel of Experts to do so.
Singapore is squeezing its limited contact with North Korea, but it does maintain diplomatic relations with it, as do all other members of ASEAN and more than 150 other countries. North Korea is also part of the annual ASEAN Regional Forum. Singapore has no diplomatic mission in North Korea; North Korea has a bare-boned, two person embassy staff in Singapore. Singaporean companies conduct a miniscule amount of trade with North Korea estimated at 0.2% of North Korea’s total—the same share as Luxembourg, Taiwan and Sri Lanka—and declining. During Prime Minister Lee’s visit to Washington, if not in his meeting with Trump, then on Capitol Hill or in other Administration meetings, this contact and ASEAN’s relationship as a whole might be raised. One can expect the Prime Minister to be constructive and open to suggestion.
Singapore is a sovereign country. As such, it is, of course, occupied with protecting its own national interests. The analysis of its leaders and diplomats is honest and insightful. It is not entirely objective. It is colored, at least in part, by Singapore’s geostrategic fate and what Michael Leifer—the most prominent scholar of Southeast Asian international relations of his generation—once called a “foreign policy rooted in a culture of siege and insecurity.” Singapore’s prescriptions cannot be bought wholesale by American political leaders and officials. They come at foreign policy from a much different historical and material perspective. But Singapore does offer extremely valuable advice and an enlightened concept of its national interest that has consistently aligned it with the United States. As a result, for decades, it has long been among the most persistent advocates of for a robust U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific. As President Trump prepares for his trip to Asia next month, he can learn a great deal from Prime Minister Lee about how best to establish and maintain this.