Realism as S’pore ‘warns’ US
Behind The Headlines By Bunn Nagara
The city state has begun to adjust to emerging regional realities while pivoting on its pragmatic impulses, as always, while steering a steady course between China and the US.SINGAPORE’S political positions are nothing if not coolly calculated and calibrated. They are specially so when expressed in formal statements at high-level meetings.
In Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam’s keynote address to the CSIS (Center for Strategic and International Studies) gathering in Washington recently, US media reported him as “warning” the US against China-bashing rhetoric.
Words about containing China, particularly in the populist mood of a US election year, would he said cause a “new and intended reality for the region.” It was not the first time Shanmugam had said so, having previously cautioned against the futility of containing a rising China.
However, these statements do mark a shift from previous Singapore policies on the US and China. As a small country overwhelmingly dependent on international trade, finance and therefore regional stability, an unwritten rule for Singapore has long been to avoid making waves while sidling up to the largest kid on the block.
Neither the region’s pecking order nor Singapore’s guiding principles have changed, only the emerging realities on the ground. The wherewithal for continued US pre-eminence has largely flattened out without having yet declined, while China’s stature and substance continue to rise.
The Obama administration has lately pledged to boost the US regional presence, but the extent, duration and consistency of doing so are unclear. China, meanwhile, has no need to risk overstretching itself in East Asia because it is in the region’s centre.
At one level, Singapore’s latest statement confirms a shift from former Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew’s pro-US slant following his retirement last May. For half a century, Lee had championed an alliance with the US over other powers like China, lately much of it because of a rising China.
At a more substantive level, Shanmugam’s statement well indicates Singapore’s new and belated efforts to woo an ascendant China. In seeming different now, Singapore is merely reaffirming its standard pragmatism based on an acute sense of self-preservation.
For the region, Singapore’s new tack may be surprising at first but not unwelcome. It simply expressed the obvious when that needed expressing, even if in doing so it made Singapore look more pro-active than its neighbours in acknowledging China’s burgeoning gravitas.
Singapore’s advice to Washington also came on the eve of Chinese vice-president (and prospective president) Xi Jinping’s state visit. The timing had apparently turned up the volume of Shanmugam’s statement to US lawmakers and their constituents.
Like everyone else, the US had long perceived Singapore as a feisty independent state averse to China’s dominance, following its early struggle against ethnic Chinese leftists and then its break-up with Malaysia, while retaining a largely ethnic Chinese population.
Today, Singapore’s “new look” policy is effectively not only for Washington’s benefit or just to showcase a contemporary Singapore to China. It also serves as an oblique reminder to Beijing that any hostile US rhetoric now would be mere campaign posturing and therefore undeserving of a like reaction.
After all, China is also getting set for a leadership change, a time when new directions may be set in ways likely to appease the populace. Its decade-long leadership is more than twice as enduring as a US presidential term and its policy direction could be several times as significant as the US equivalent.
Still, news reports implying how tiny Singapore had “warned” the world’s sole superpower might have seemed strong, if not strange. It is a measure of Singapore’s new posture that far from denying such reports, Shanmugam proceeded to expand on his comments.
He noted with approval how Chinese media widely reported his comments approvingly. Singapore media were also not shy in lingering over the issue.
The Straits Times noted that “a power transition is under way” in the region. Singapore-based Channel News Asia noted how well Shanmugam’s remarks had played in China.
Nonetheless, many US Netizens were not as hospitable to the comments. Among the more common responses was the defensive argument that US rhetoric against China was free speech and so warranted no warning or censure.
Another common reaction was to despise China and its unfolding development even more. A zero-sum mentality prevailed on US-China relations, aggravated by a pervasive sense of a declining US economy in free fall.
The third common reaction among Americans commenting online was to attack the messenger. Thus Shanmugam was criticised for acknowledging China’s success and daring to warn the US over it.
Singapore’s revised articulation of regional realities does not surprise any serious onlooker in Asia. Its concerns are self-evident, its priorities apparent, and its assessment of the region timely.
A contrast comes with the Philippines, where rival claims with China over offshore territory has come to define their relationship. This amounts to allowing marginal interests to determine larger substantive ones: yet again, pragmatism distinguishes Singapore’s policies from the Philippines’.
Even so, Singapore’s recent assessment of regional realities sums up Asean’s understanding of them. What Washington will make of it, if anything, is anybody’s guess.
Republicans are particularly anxious to parade their conservative values, such as by defending US prerogatives, paramountcy and exceptionalism. This has encouraged emotive responses from Americans “in America’s interest.”
Democrats can only respond defensively by trying to match or pre-empt the Republicans’ US-centric aggressiveness. However much the Obama White House may prefer a more mature and measured response, it must also know that is far less likely to “sell”.
Thus Shanmugam’s counsel to Washington comes full circle. He spoke as he did because of the circumstances of the time, and it is those circumstances that now make him an easy target in the US.
As Americans brace for a presidential election in November, all parties can be just as prickly over any foreign reminders that the US needs to behave better. And it is practically a given that enraged US Netizens disconnected from reality will be given a better hearing in Washington than even the most thoughtful of allies in Asia.