A balancing act
With a more assertive China and a weakening US, Lee Hsien Loong visits the White House with a request. By Seah Chiang Nee.
Apr 6, 2013
(Synopsis: In his first real foreign policy test, question arises: Can he pull off his father’s act of moving closer militarily to US while still enjoying friendly relations with Beijing?)
FOR a few days last week, Singapore’s prime minister left behind his troubles at home to face a tricky foreign policy matter that his father once excelled in.
Lee Hsien Loong paid his second visit to the United States in six years that was evidently aimed at deepening Singapore’s strategic ties with Washington at a time of rising tensions in Asia.
In a meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House, Hsien Loong appealed to the economically-weakened United States to stay committed in Asia despite plans for big defence cuts.
Of late, Asia has been plagued by territorial claims and counter-claims involving China and at least a dozen countries, sometimes resulting in frictions and warning shots being fired.
While Hsien Loong was in America, former prime minister Goh Chok Tong arrived in China for a seven-day visit, where he met the new Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
The Singaporean leader’s US visit took place as many foreign leaders were sending congratulations to Xi on his assumption of office.
It comes in the wake of a decision by the American president and Congress to cut the Pentagon’s budget by US$487bil over the next decade. The cut took effect on March 1.
Singapore has become more concerned about China’s rising economy resulting in an expanding maritime force at a time when the US military might is weakening.
His attempt to maintain a balance in the republic’s ties with China and United States had long been the forte of founding leader Lee Kuan Yew.
It had kept Singapore in good stead with both.
Despite this, Singapore has been placing greater trust on the protection of the United States.
Although Singaporeans are predominantly Chinese and have built up strong economic and other ties with Beijing, the city has strong military and strategy relations with Washington.
Singapore is more worried about China’s soft encroaching use of its power in the area than any prospect of it starting a war in Asia.
For example, Beijing has begun using a new passport which shows a map showing several disputed territories as part of the nation of China.
This has instilled regional worries, leading several countries involved to strengthen ties with the United States.
In a new book released in February, Kuan Yew – now a passive 89-year-old Member of Parliament – voices worries about China’s rise in power.
“Many small and medium countries in Asia are concerned (and are) uneasy that China may want to resume the imperial status it had in earlier centuries,” Kuan Yew says.
“They have misgivings such as being treated as vassal states.”
“China tells us that countries big or small are equal, that it is not a hegemon,” Kuan Yew writes.
“But when we do something they do not like, they say you have made 1.3 billion people unhappy. So please know your place.”
It prompted Singapore to move closer militarily to the United States years ago by offering passing facilities for its air force and navy, including aircraft carriers.
Hsien Loong’s visit probably has another purpose. Singapore is reportedly on the verge of making a decision to buy America’s F-35 fighter jets to upgrade its air force.
Singapore’s defence minister Ng Eng Hen said last week that the air force “has identified the F-35 as a suitable aircraft to further modernise our fighter fleet”.
“Our F-5s are nearing the end of their operational life and our F-16s are at their mid-way mark,” he said in parliament. “We are now in the final stages of evaluating the F-35.”
The order could be for 12 F-35Bs (estimated cost: US$2.8bil, which can take off and land vertically, a useful feature given Singapore’s limited air space.
However, it is not known if there are further plans to buy more in future. Reuters quoted industry and US sources as saying Singapore may buy up to 75 F-35Bs eventually.
Singapore was the world’s fifth-largest importer of conventional weapons in 2008-12, at 4% of the global total, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute says.
It trailed behind India, China, Pakistan and South Korea.
The visiting Hsien Loong was assured by US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel that the United States remained “committed towards the Asia-Pacific region”.
Of growing US focus is China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, which is projecting the country’s new maritime power.
Although Hsien Loong became prime minister eight years ago, this is his first real test of his diplomatic skill in a major foreign policy without Cabinet guidance from his father.
This visit – and the consequences – will determine if he could succeed in steering Singapore through the intensifying rivalry of China and the United States.
In his after-dinner speech in Washington, Hsien Loong said Singapore got along well with both.
One reason he implied was China needed to look at his city-state to try to understand how it could balance its own economic and social goals while growing.
The Chinese needs Singapore as a political model for them to learn from, without political reforms, Hsien Loong told the Americans.
What of China’s intention? Kuan Yew says he is certain China’s leaders want to displace United States as the leading power in the Asia-Pacific.
The former still remember hunger and starvation, while the latter believe China has arrived.
But in speeches published, he says he is less worried about the current generation of leaders than he does about the next.
The great progress has spurred a “reawakened sense of destiny” that Lee regards as “an overpowering force.”
This is an expanded version of the article published first in The Star).