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Singapore’s steady pair of hands in Southeast Asia now needed more than ever

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Southeast Asian leaders at a virtual summit, 26 October 2021 (Photo: Reuters).

In Brief

At this time of uncertainty, the fulcrum of geopolitical global affairs is in East Asia. While Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula might be the main flashpoints of big power strategic tension, it’s Southeast Asia that’s the frontline of non-military competition between the United States and China, and where peace will be lost or won. Singapore’s steady pair of hands are crucial to guiding the way through.


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In thinking about China and its influence in East Asia, Southeast Asia is front and centre. Its organising grouping, ASEAN, is the buffer in dealings with the great powers across Asia and the Pacific, including for partners like Australia and Japan. Both of the great powers need the cooperation of ASEAN. A fracture in ASEAN and its central balancing role in East Asia would be a major threat to security throughout the region.

ASEAN and its member countries have sought to find solutions to big power strategic competition in a way that maintains an open regime for trade and investment, and to avoid taking positions that exacerbate tensions in the region. For ASEAN, the strategic rivalry between the United States and China is subsidiary to this imperative. A peaceful balancing of power between Washington and Beijing suits ASEAN best, allowing it to retain its own space to serve the interests of its member states rather than those of either hegemonic power. The philosophy of non-interference and non-alignment in ASEAN’s DNA can be seen in ASEAN’s response to political turmoil in Myanmar both in 2007 and in this past year: ASEAN avoided moralising about the political crisis while it pushed for a peaceful resolution behind the scenes.

This doesn’t mean that ASEAN is unconcerned by the deterioration of US–China relations, or indeed by the growing political sway of China in the region. The military gap between China and ASEAN member states has widened considerably, cementing a perception of China as a potential military threat in the eyes of many policymakers in Southeast Asia. Assertiveness in the South China Sea has been the touchpoint of this concern in some of ASEAN’s member states.

ASEAN has not been passive, even if it has been slow-moving. Despite differences between member states, negotiations with China over a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea have progressed over the past decade and are due to conclude next year.

Indonesia, its largest member, dominates ASEAN’s geopolitical being and its instincts. But Singapore, the remarkable success story of Southeast Asia’s development and modernisation, is a crucial nerve centre that energises and refines ASEAN’s strategies and diplomacy. Singapore’s reliable and steady pair of hands alongside Indonesia’s subtle strategic weight are a formidable combination that adds enormous value to the persistence of ASEAN’s influence.

Singapore’s deft projection of ASEAN’s strategic interests in navigating the rise of strategic competition between the two big powers in Southeast Asia in recent years has been a masterclass in the practice of collective diplomacy – symbolised in Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s public admonition to Prime Minister Scott Morrison about how Australia’s China diplomacy might be directed more productively.

More than any other East Asian nation, Singapore understands the economic and political imperative of remaining open to all major powers and has helped batten down ASEAN strategies against being wedged by the United States with its Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) framework, crafted in response to Chinese efforts like the Belt and Road Initiative. It rejected a conception of maritime security that looked very much like a containment strategy to China. ASEAN’s cautious approach is instructive. It issued its own statement, the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific. It carefully embedded its response to the United States in an existing multilateral platform, the East Asia Summit, where ASEAN could veto any attempt to override it. And most tellingly, it added new dimensions on economic cooperation and development that had been significantly absent from FOIP.

The message that sends is clear: ASEAN has no interest in any new paradigm of regional security that neglects economic development and cooperation, or that subordinates it to strategic rivalries between competing hegemons. While ASEAN’s members will continue to engage with China and the United States in a manner that accords with their own national security objectives, those objectives themselves will be in the service of a broader conception of regional diplomacy that prioritises economic development and openness, not geopolitical rivalry.

The defining features of the Singaporean polity that is the engine room of this tightly managed Southeast Asian diplomacy under the long-dominant People’s Action Party (PAP) are meritocracy, control and stability.

In our lead article this week, Michael Barr worries about the succession vacuum that hangs over Singapore and what the ‘hiccup’ in the transfer of power from Prime Minister Lee to a fourth generation leader might mean for Singapore’s political brand.

‘Singapore politics appears confused, directionless and overwhelmingly defensive on nearly every front’, says Barr. ‘The leadership transition … has dragged into its fifth year without resolution, and has now creaked to a halt that leaves Prime Minister Lee (at 69) as a visibly tired place-holder, occupying the seat of power but not really leading’. Carefully managed political succession has been the hallmark of Singapore politics since independence, the presumed foundation of the country’s political predictability, stability and good government.

In launching a book on the history of the PAP last week, Prime Minister Lee noted that political transition had brought its anxieties in the past — in 1984 and 1985 from the first to the second-generation leadership — and occasioned deep PAP introspection as its vote fell below 70 per cent of the total for the first time. The country’s stability, progress and success may not appear astonishing to those who’ve enjoyed its benefits, Lee reflected, but it ‘was hardly predicted much less preordained’. A good part of the explanation, for Lee and Singapore’s political establishment of course, is the PAP’s enduring political machine.

Over 60 per cent of the Singaporean electorate today were born post-independence. The PAP vote has continued to decline despite in-built electoral bias, though recent gains in parliamentary representation of the political opposition are unlikely to see it triumph any time soon.

Hopefully the roots of Singaporean stability, social and political resilience and its palpable ability to contribute beyond its weight to the strength of the Southeast Asian enterprise are deeper than the PAP’s continued dominance of the political landscape.

Nonetheless, continued breakdown in succession management may well do damage to Singapore’s brand in the eyes of international partners and investors and PAP’s brand in the eyes of the Singaporean electorate and resolution of PAP’s leadership hiatus would be a welcome development across the region.

The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

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