THE SWING STATE: A PRIMER ON SINGAPORE
By John Ford
This is the eighth in a series of guest posts by John Ford. John is a graduate of Chapman University School of Law and is a reserve officer in the US Army. He will be writing short profiles of 8 countries that are of great importance to US foreign policy but receive little attention in the media: Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, The Congo, Nigeria, Mali, Myanmar, and Singapore. The purpose is to give readers a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities these countries present and how they relate to American global strategy. You can follow John on Twitter at @johndouglasford.
If Myanmar (covered in Part 7) gives us a chance to see how countries close to China are responding to China’s rise, Singapore gives us a good window into how countries that have traditionally been close to the US are responding. Few countries in Asia have been closer to the US in the last half-century than Singapore has been. It’s not hard to see why. Singapore is a dynamic capitalist city-state that is dependent on foreign trade which means it is also dependent on the US Navy.
Singapore is a tiny country of 5.3 million people crammed onto an island roughly the same geographic size as Lexington, Kentucky. Its population is hugely diverse. The island attracts immigrants from throughout Asia and the broader world. One in three residents in Singapore is foreign born, about the same percentage of foreign born residents as Los Angeles or New York City. The story of how this backwater British fueling station went from third world to first in a single generation is largely the story of one man: Singapore’s visionary founding father, Lee Kuan Yew.
Singapore has many geographic impediments to growth. Its size and lack of natural resources are the most obvious. Singapore’s biggest geographic advantage is that it is located right on the vital Malacca Strait, a hugely important waterway that links East Asia’s growing economies to the Middle East’s energy resources. Singapore has taken full advantage of its favorable location to overcome its other disadvantages to become one of the wealthiest countries on Earth.
Singapore depends on trade for its prosperity and to protect and promote global trade it depends on the US Navy. The US Navy ensured that global trade would expand in the post-war world by preserving freedom of the seas. International trade could expand under the protective umbrella of American power and Singapore benefitted from the growth in trade by sea as much as any country. Even as its economy has diversified, (comma) the foundation of the island’s prosperity has remained trade.
But the landscape is changing. First, the US Navy is in decline. The number of ships in service is falling and the Navy has been ordered to purchase fewer ships in the future because of budget cuts. Second, China’s Navy is growing in strength. China’s Navy is still well behind the US but the trend is in their favor and China has the advantage of being able to concentrate their forces in the Western Pacific whereas the US has to disperse its forces throughout the world. As the military balance in Asia tips towards China and away from the US the pressure will build for Singapore to alter its strategic posture by tilting more towards China and less towards the US.
Singapore is not just facing pressure to move away from the US on the security side. It is facing an even greater economic pressure to move away from the US and towards China. Twenty years ago, the US was Singapore’s largest trading partner. The volume of trade with the US was six times greater than the volume of trade with China. Now, trade with China is 30% greater than trade with the US. This trend is growing as China continues to expand its economy and the US continues to stagnate.
Singapore’s relationship with the US is based on the ability of the US Navy to protect global trade. If Singapore continues to grow more dependent on trade with China, as China’s military eclipses America’s in the Far East, Singapore will be pulled away from the US and into the Chinese orbit.
This is significant not just for US relations with Singapore but for America’s relations with many countries in Asia that are traditional US allies because Singapore’s challenge is not unique. South Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, even Australia and Taiwan are finding that their economies are increasingly dependent on trade with China for their growth. They do not see America’s stagnant economy as a driver of economic growth in the region. The challenge faced by Singapore is the same one faced by many countries: How to maneuver between a rising power that will drive their economic growth and a declining one they still rely on for security guarantees.
This situation, from Singapore’s point of view, is far from ideal. Singapore rather likes the old American-dominated world order. So do America’s other allies in the Far East. The world economy as we know it today grew under up under the protection of American power. Commerce from all nations was treated on an equal basis and was granted protection. The United States is far away from Asia and it never interfered much with the affairs of its allies.
At times when China was the dominant power in Asia, which it has been for most of its history, China has not been so benevolent. Modern international relations are based on the equality of nation-states. This system was designed by Europeans and Americans without Chinese involvement. China’s history is very different from the European or American experience. China did not traditionally conduct its foreign relations on the basis that nation states were equal.
Traditionally, China has proceeded on the idea that China was the Middle Kingdom, the central power in the world order. Its relationships were tributary with other states being subservient to China. China only dealt with countries on a bilateral basis. It did not engage with other countries together, it would only deal with them one on one and not ever as equals to China. This prevented China’s neighbors from easily aggregating their power in diplomacy to limit China’s size advantage.
This history is unfamiliar to most Americans but it is as familiar to China’s neighbors as the history of Europe’s rivalries are to western students. Singapore knows full well that if China does come to dominate Asia and the Pacific, Singapore cannot count on being treated by China in the deferential manner they have been treated by its American friends. Singapore expects that China will try to dominate it. Most of China’s neighbors share this fear even as they find their countries increase their dependence on China. They see the danger but cannot seem to avoid it.
What Singapore really wants is what Singapore’s founding father wants. Lee Kuan Yew is now 90 years old. He is semi-retired from politics but is still the guiding force in Singapore’s government. His political party has an iron grip on Singapore’s parliament and his son, Lee Hsien-Loong, is now Prime Minister. Lee Kuan Yew holds the title of Minister-Mentor, a sort or Prime Minister Emeritus position. Lee’s views are widely respected around the world and he has been sought out by American leaders since the days of Nixon and Kissinger for his advice. He has given it willingly as a good ally would be expected to.
But Lee also played a role in China’s rise, as a friend and advisor to Deng Xiaoping. Deng always said that his visit to Singapore in 1978 helped shape his views on economic reform. Seeing a majority Chinese city-state led by an ethnically Chinese leader become a prosperous dynamo helped convince Deng that reform was necessary in China and that China could become as prosperous as Singapore had if it began to move away from the dogmatic communism of the Mao era.
Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore does not want to see China remain poor. It just doesn’t want to see China become dominant. It does not want to see the US displaced and it does not want to stand in China’s shadow. It wants China to grow and prosper and it wants to benefit from that growth and prosperity. It also wants the US to grow and prosper and to maintain a significant presence in Asia and it wants to see America’s alliance system in Asia maintained so as to protect the interests of countries like Singapore from Chinese domination.
Finally, Singapore wants America to keep the world’s oceans open and free. Singapore’s location on the Malacca Straits put it right on the most vulnerable chokepoint for China’s energy supply. The Malacca Straits are to 21st Century China what the Dardanelles were to 19th Century Russia. Singapore is very uncomfortable with how important their small island is to Chinese strategists. It is very concerned that as China rises it will seek to control the Malacca Straits.
The strategy that Singapore would advise the US to follow would be a very wise one. The US needs to understand its ability to maintain its position in the world is closely connected to its ability to regain its economic vigor. The US also needs to develop a balanced policy towards China that affords China a place at the table without allowing China to displace it in Asia or allowing it to dominate countries like Singapore, South Korea, and Vietnam. America’s ability to build a security framework that can contain Chinese power while also building an economic framework that allows China to integrate into the global economy will determine whether China’s rise is peaceful or violent and whether China takes a seat at the table or tried to take the whole table for itself. Singapore is more than just a swing state in the contest between China and America. It is also a source of good advice.
For further reading:
“From Third World to First” by Lee Kuan Yew
“The Grand Master’s Insights” by Robert Blackwill and Graham Allison
“Citizen Singapore: How to Build a Nation” by Tom Plate