By Hal Brands
THESE ARE fraught times for Asia-Pacific nations caught in the crossfire of the intensifying US-China rivalry. I recently wrote about how one longtime US ally, the Philippines, is repositioning itself between Washington and Beijing. But Manila is hardly alone in trying to protect itself as the geopolitical giants clash.
Singapore confronts a similar challenge, which was thrown into relief by an interview that its prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, gave last week. Lee’s remarks may rankle some US analysts. Yet they highlight the dilemmas faced by weaker states — and point to some imperatives of success for America.
First under the legendary Lee Kuan Yew, and now under his eldest son, Singapore has pulled off a shrewd balancing act in a contentious neighborhood. Singapore’s dynamic economy has been buoyed by Chinese trade and investment, and its population is mostly ethnic Chinese. Yet getting too close to a powerful China can be dangerous, so Singapore’s government has long viewed Washington as a critical counterweight to Beijing’s power. As that power has increased in recent decades, so has Singapore’s security cooperation with the US.
Singapore’s armed forces regularly train with (and in) the US, and Singapore hosts the US Navy’s Logistics Group Western Pacific as well as deployments of littoral combat ships and P-8 maritime surveillance planes. US aircraft carriers conduct port visits in Singapore, a visible reminder that Washington takes an interest in the country’s security. Singapore remains officially neutral; unlike the Philippines, it does not have a treaty relationship with the US. Yet if the Philippines is an ally that acts like a partner, as a senior US official once put it, Singapore is a partner that acts like an ally.
This Singaporean balancing act was underscored by Lee’s interview with the Washington Post. Building on a speech he gave in May, at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, Lee gave a warning to America and China alike.
The trend toward seeing the US-China competition as “a conflict between two systems, almost two civilizations” is “very worrying,” he said. The US should not delude itself into thinking that pressure can bring about the collapse of the Chinese Communist Party; it should bear in mind that an economic and technological divorce between the world’s leading powers would create an impossible situation for America’s friends “so deeply enmeshed with the Chinese.” If the US insists that these countries choose sides, it might not like the results: “Where is your part of the world, and who will be in your system?”
At the same time, Lee acknowledged that China’s behavior has become more truculent, due to rising geopolitical ambitions and growing internal difficulties. He also argued that China can no longer act like a developing country, but must bear its “share of responsibility upholding and supporting the global system” that has made it so rich and powerful. If a disastrous geopolitical showdown is to be averted, “statesmanship, consistency, perseverance and wisdom” will be required from both sides.
Some of Lee’s comments are a bit grating, from an American perspective. He implies a certain moral equivalency between the US and China, and alludes only obliquely to Beijing’s horrifying abuses of the Uighurs in Xinjiang. Other aspects of his comments reflect an attitude better suited to 2005 than 2019: It is abundantly clear by now that China just won’t become a “responsible stakeholder” in an American-led system. Yet Lee’s comments shouldn’t be dismissed, because they illuminate three critical issues the US will face in rallying an international coalition to counter Chinese power.
First, a larger confrontation with China will be economically painful for US — but it could be economically devastating for America’s key allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific, all of which are deeply interdependent with Beijing in commercial, financial, and technological terms. The prospect of a technological or economic Iron Curtain coming down is alarming for countries whose economic interests pull one way while their security interests pull another. To be sure, the US can’t compete successfully with China unless its friends become less dependent on Beijing: Some selective de-coupling from the Chinese economy is important, even if wholesale de-coupling remains implausible. Yet the only way to get countries such as Singapore to reduce their dependence on Beijing is to vastly deepen the possibilities for economic, financial, and technological integration within the US-led coalition. Here, America presently seems like an uncertain partner, at best.
Second, Lee underlines the dangers of combining hard-line rhetoric with inconsistent policy. Many countries in the region were quietly happy for the Trump administration to take a tougher approach to China, but now they worry that the administration is better at talking competition than walking it.
For example, Washington has pressured its friends in the Asia-Pacific and elsewhere to avoid reliance on Chinese 5G technology, but efforts to provide alternatives have lagged far behind. Asia-Pacific countries have been jerked back and forth by the unexpected US effort to cripple Huawei Technologies Co., and then subsequent indications that Washington might relax its sanctions on the Chinese telecom giant. The US has increased its defense budget and revived the “quad” (a security and diplomatic mechanism involving the US, Australia, Japan, and India), yet Trump has derided America’s alliance commitments to an unprecedented degree. An unreliable America does a small, exposed Singapore no good, and won’t be very effective in winning the loyalties of frontline states over time.
Finally, Americans need to keep in mind that different messages will appeal to different parts of a prospective counter-China coalition. I have argued before that embracing the deep ideological conflict between liberal and illiberal forms of government is essential to rallying democratic countries to the cause. But other governments will find this argument less persuasive.
Singapore is, after all, a police state, albeit a comparatively benign one. Other key partners, such as Vietnam, are deeply authoritarian. These countries may not be interested in making the world safe for democracy. But they do value self-determination — the idea that they should be able to work out their own destinies free of coercion and intimidation. That’s the sort of message that can be broadly effective in the Asia-Pacific region, because it’s a concept that both liberal and friendly illiberal regimes can get behind.