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Singapore and the changing balance of regional power

Written by: (Contributed) on 30 November 2020


A recent major diplomatic statement from the Singapore Government of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has revealed serious disquiet about United States foreign policy toward the region in recent years.

The development, which rests upon a changing balance of forces and structural changes across the wider region, has already created problems for those supportive of US domination in the region, including Australia.

In mid-November, the Singapore government issued a major diplomatic statement about the predicament the country faced within the context of the wider Indo-Pacific: US-led regional foreign policy had included counter-productive elements, which PM Lee Hsien Loong warned were likely to 'have long-term repercussions'. (1) He noted that problems had arisen with the US attempting to create 'a Cold War-style alliance against China'. (2)

RCEP to further weaken US influence

The recent creation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a trade body which has included all ten ASEAN countries, together with others including Australia, has been noted as 'tipped to further diminish America's influence in the region'. (3) It has provided further evidence that the rapid rise of China has led to structural changes taking place in economies across the Indo-Pacific.

China was a major diplomatic player in the drive to establish the RCEP, which runs counter to recent US-led diplomatic initiatives and political rhetoric to build Cold War alliances centred on the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) around Australia, Japan and India linked directly into US-led regional foreign policy. The RCEP has already been regarded as likely to strengthen trade links between China and ASEAN and their supporters, despite both the US and India not even being part of the trade body. (4)

The Singapore government diplomatic statement also drew attention to the fact that previous US presidential administrations before Trump 'have seen America as having broad interest in the stability of the region and the well-being of its partners'. (5) The Trump administration had largely been responsible, however, for pushing regional foreign policy agendas which included joining 'a coalition against those who have been excluded, chief of whom will be China'. (6) The creation of the RCEP had shown just how counter-productive the policies of the Trump administration had been.

The developments would also tend to add further weight to the findings of a US congressional commission in November, 2018, that 'the US is no longer clearly superior to the threats its faces around the world'. (7)

There would appear to have been a parting of the ways in recent times: the development has created a serious problem whereby those associated with US-led initiatives had included military and security provision alongside trade considerations; China's main concern has been primarily economic, military considerations being pursued through other channels.

These developments have far-reaching implications for Singapore: its dramatic rise was based largely upon US-led initiatives dating from the previous Cold War. It has been noted, furthermore, that recent developments have seen Singapore failing to become 'a major shaper of the ASEAN agenda', and 'out of synch with the rest of the region', together with the problem that despite the strong Chinese ancestry of their population, Singapore has failed to have much influence inside China itself. (8)

Implications for Australia

These developments also have implications for Australia, where sycophantic governments slavishly follow US-led regional foreign policy directives despite China being the country's biggest trading partner.

When focussing upon links between Australia and Singapore, it is, therefore, possible to establish the very distinct likelihood of just how fraught the diplomatic relationship may eventually become in future decades.

There are two very important considerations: rotations of military personnel and intelligence-gathering.

A new joint military training agreement has rested upon longer-term planning where Australia and Singapore entered into a 'comprehensive partnership' in 2013, which was updated three years later. The recent further update has included provision for joint training together with all three services of the Singapore Armed Forces having rotations through Australia for upwards of eighteen months for 14,000 personnel. (9)

Secondly, Singapore lies just below the arc from Diego Garcia to Guam from Pine Gap in central Australia and has a long history of involvement between the corporate sector and intelligence services. (10) Singtel, the main national mobile telephone company, for example, has provided a vitally important opportunity for 'the US and Australia to expand eavesdropping capabilities in the region', together with 'signals interception facilities within the South China Seas area'. (11)

It is also linked to several other mobile telephone companies and is known to have links into PACOM, the main US Command in Hawaii. (12)

The strategic significance of Singapore being approximately halfway between the two US military hubs for the vast Indo-Pacific region, has become more important following an announcement that China was thought to be planning a naval base on Cambodia's small coastline. (13) The proposed naval base would provide China with support facilities for the South China Seas.

Singapore, however, while remaining a strategic asset for US-led regional foreign policy, is faced with a reduction in viable options as traditional US domination continually declines.

Part of the problem arising with US decline, furthermore, has been greater responsibilities thrust upon Australia for regional military and security considerations.

The strong links Australia has established with Singapore, therefore, are likely to become problematic over the next few decades, as China increases its regional influence and dislodges the US as the world's biggest economy. The Pentagon is unlikely to take such developments willingly, and we are already witnessing their military planning for real-war scenarios.
                                           We need an independent foreign policy!

1.     Asia's perception of America may never recover: Lee, Australian, 18 November 2020.
2.     Ibid.
3.     Beijing trade win as Asia signs on, The Weekend Australian, 14-15 November 2020.
4.     Regional partnership forms world's largest trading bloc, Australian, 16 November 2020.
5.     Australian, op.cit., 18 November 2020.
6.     Ibid.
7.     Study: US no longer dominant power in the Pacific, Paul D. Shinkman, Information Clearing House, 22 August 2019.
8.     Is Singapore western intelligence's sixth eye? The Asia Sentinel, 10 December 2013.
9.     Australia-Singapore defence relations, The Diplomat, 23 March 2020.
10.   Sentinel, op.cit., 10 December 2013.
11.   Ibid.
12.   Ibid.
13.   Strategic alliance in north enthuses visiting US chiefs, Australian, 22 August 2019.


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