Singapore in the boiling waters of the South China Sea

Just some comments from an old man who’s observed the world for a while…

Singapore is a principled international actor. She does not shirk away from conflict when it comes to defending her interests, and makes it plainly known what she thinks is best for herself and those who are involved in her diplomatic relations.

Now with the South China Sea, the simple story is that Singapore is not a claimant state in the disputes and so is only interested in defending international law and the right to lawful passage in the South China Sea (SCS).

Since Singapore’s not a claimant state, is it fair to say that we can sit back and do nothing about the situation between the regional and international actors like China and the US involved in the dispute?

Not so.


Flags from ASEAN countries flying in Jakarta.
Flags from ASEAN countries flying in Jakarta.

ASEAN unity

The overarching reason why Singapore is so actively involved in the SCS is because small countries like Singapore depend on the good will of larger countries and obedience to international law to survive.

The other important way for Singapore to survive in a hostile world is to be part of larger regional groupings and that is why Singapore is so active in ASEAN and other regional and international organizations like the UN etc.

Yet as many people have already seen, ASEAN is a struggling, broken union. It has achieved very little very slowly in its many years of existence and comes across as nothing more than a talkshop that produces very little concrete programmes.

Of course, those in the know will defend ASEAN because it is by far one of the only formal mechanisms that is holding the region together, and having a regular meet up between regional leaders is bound to lead to some progress between a few member countries at the very least.

The recent debacle with ASEAN being divided between pro-China and non-China factions is undoubtedly a blow to Singapore. It cannot just wash its hands of the damage that has been done to the regional grouping by the Chinese puppet Cambodia.

It needs to come out strongly and defend ASEAN as a regional grouping that has a voice, and a unified voice at that, against any country that dares to thumb down the region.

It is to the interest of the grouping that Singapore speaks up on the SCS issue, not play it down. If Singapore allows China to walk all over it over the South China Sea issue, what’s to stop any other great world power or regional bloc from doing the same?



US versus China

The balancing between the US and China is a more tricky issue and is bound to upset one or other at one point or the other.

This is not because Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) is doing a lousy job at it. If it were, we wouldn’t be the Singapore of today.

As I see it, Singapore takes a very long term view of its diplomacy. It is much like the Chinese, willing to concede certain strategic advantages in the meantime for a long term gain. In chess, it is like giving up pawns or even a queen in exchange for a checkmate.

By tying itself closely to the US now, and encouraging the global superpower to extend its reach into the region, Singapore is establishing a counterbalancing power in the region against a rising China. There will be people who will doubt the commitment of the US, and that is to be expected.

After all, who knows what the next US president will do?

So the approach has to be multi pronged. Make the US commit economic, military, political capital here. Make sure that if they want to pull out, like the British did in 1967, it would be faced with losses so great it would have to think twice.

Then what about a rising and increasingly angry China? Singapore is not afraid of sanctions and a war?

First things first, there is no war between Singapore and China. It is inconceivable and impractical for the Chinese to expend military resources on us.

Second, the Chinese can impose sanctions. Singapore will just have to deal with it as it comes, if it comes, but the Chinese will have to manage the international fallout from its bullying antics thereafter. It won’t take such a decision lightly.

What Singapore hopes to achieve is a less hostile environment for it to survive in the coming decades, or centuries even. We may have an unhappy relationship with China now, but that, like all things in international diplomacy, will come to pass.

We should remember that Singapore in the 1990s had hit one of its worst relationship lows with the US, especially under Bill Clinton. Yet more recently, Singapore’s prime minister was invited to a rare state dinner organized by the White House. Ironic, but not unusual in diplomacy.


So what?

So Singapore is prodding the Chinese giant, bringing in a US presence into Asia, making statements against China’s interests in the SCS, trying to create a fairer, less “might is right” environment for Singapore to survive in for the coming generations.

In all fairness, success at this game is a hard thing to quantify. We can only hope Singapore wins, for the sake of Singaporeans, and for the sake of everyone in this region.



Peter Quah is a retired political commentator with an interest in foreign and military affairs. He spends his time reading books and drinking tea, but most of time tries to deal with the tantrums of his young grandchild.

2 Replies to “Singapore in the boiling waters of the South China Sea”

  1. Great article!!
    The government should explain like what this article just did. So that our people especially the local Singaporean Chinese community could understand why our government is doing what it’s doing.

    We are not just picking a quarell with Beijing.. thank you for putting up this article

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