Six countries in three months: the United States, China, Laos, Japan, India and Australia. PM Lee has been making the rounds to affirm strong ties and boost them further. Insight looks at these visits to Singapore's key partners and the challenges for Singapore's approach to foreign policy at a time when the global balance of power is shifting.
By Chong Zi Liang, The Sunday Times, 16 Oct 2016

The past three months have been packed ones for Singapore's diplomats.

From Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's visit to Washington in August to his address to Australia's Parliament in Canberra last week, Singapore has been stepping up ties with its key partners.

In between those two trips, PM Lee was invited to the Group of 20 leaders' summit in Hangzhou, China, and visited Vientiane in Laos, as well as Tokyo and New Delhi.

These visits underscore the importance of diplomacy to Singapore's survival and sovereignty as a small state that relies on open trade and respect for the rule of law globally.

But Singapore's independent, principled, foreign policy positions have also come under scrutiny as the global balance of power shifts.

Insight looks at Singapore's foreign policy and the challenges it faces on the international as well as domestic front.

Singapore's view of the world

A small country like Singapore needs all the friends it can get, and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has flown some 70,000km over the past three months to make sure of that.

In August, he made an official visit to the United States at the invitation of President Barack Obama, a significant gesture that reflected a warm, deep and wide-ranging friendship spanning cooperation in various fields over the past 50 years.

Last month, he visited China for the Group of 20 leaders' summit at the invitation of President Xi Jinping, and both leaders took stock of the broad and growing friendship, in particular the third government-to-government project in Chongqing.

PM Lee then went on to Laos for the annual ASEAN and East Asia summits involving leaders of all 10 South-east Asian countries and their key partners to take regional partnerships forward.

Later that month, he also visited Japan, met Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and witnessed the signing of several pacts to strengthen ties in trade, infrastructure and technology.

In the first week of this month, he made a trip to India where he met Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and witnessed the signing of several pacts to strengthen cooperation in intellectual property and skills training.

Last week, PM Lee was in Australia where he met Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, witnessed the inking of pacts to step up defence, trade, innovation and security ties, and made a historic speech to its Parliament, the first Singapore prime minister to do so.

As he said in a Twitter post yesterday on his visit: "We've signed several agreements with Australia to take our relationship further. Happy to call them 'mates'."

In Canberra, he told Singapore reporters there are still a few more trips to come. This year saw more trips than the year before, when the calendar included SG50 celebrations and the general election.

But opportunities also presented themselves, such as the one-year anniversary of the strategic partnership with India and the conclusion of a package of initiatives under the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with Australia, he said.

"While we must not lose sight of our own domestic problems, neither must we forget that there's an outside world. There are things happening that affect us, there are opportunities and friends we have to pay attention to," PM Lee added.

The need to build upon these friendships was a key theme in his National Day Rally speech in August, where he said it was important for Singapore to have a network of friends, in its neighbourhood as well as among big powers.

The US presence in this region has fostered peace and stability and enabled countries to grow, and China's stability and prosperity have greatly benefited Asia and the world, he said then.

"We are friends with both America and China. It is easiest to do this if the two countries are on good terms with each other. In fact, both countries do aim to be on good terms with each other," he added.

"Both believe the Pacific is vast enough to accommodate both powers and President Xi Jinping said recently that America and China should 'cultivate common circles of friends'. That is precisely what Singapore is trying to do - to be among America's circle of friends, and also among China's circle of friends."

These friendships are not just about geopolitics, but economics too. Singapore has significant trade accounts with the US, China, Japan, India and Australia, and in its key partnerships, both sides have sought to advance common interests and mutual benefits.


On his visit to Washington, PM Lee made the point that America's staying open to trade with the region and its presence in the Asia-Pacific have helped create the basis for a peaceful, rules-based order, and he expressed the hope the US would stay engaged in this region.

In an interview with Chinese magazine Caijing in Hangzhou, he said that countries in the region should also determine their own path and not be divided by big powers.

"Countries in Asia, Singapore, certainly, but many other countries too, are good friends to both China and America and we would like to be good friends with both.

"And this is easiest if both China and America are working well with each other," he said.

He also said: "If ASEAN is split and South-east Asia becomes a region where different powers contend with each other and try to jockey and gain advantage and play one country against another, it will raise tensions in the region...

"It will not be to the advantage of the powers either, because it would mean a less stable Asia."

These remarks echo positions that have been consistently held by Singapore's top diplomats, who say they remain ever more crucial as the global balance of power shifts and relations between the US and China become more interlinked, but also more competitive.

Singapore's interests are best served by all players taking an active role in upholding peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific.

A key message PM Lee had for his friends in Tokyo, New Delhi and Canberra respectively was that a Japan, India and Australia that remain active and engaged in the region - trading more with it and taking part in maintaining its security - was good for the region overall.

As he told a special session of the Nikkei International Conference on the future of Asia in Tokyo: "All sides have a vested interest in reaching a new and workable balance, and in minimising conflict.

"For if countries fail to work together, we are not just losing opportunities to prosper together, but are also putting at serious risk all that we have achieved so far."

But a more challenging environment ahead, observers say, also makes it important for Singaporeans to be aware of the key elements of their country's foreign policy.


The overriding objective of Singapore's foreign policy is similar to why the country sets great store by defence and a strong, credible Singapore Armed Forces: to ensure Singapore's survival and sovereignty as an independent nation.

The country often describes its own foreign policy as principled.

Beyond building ties with partners, it seeks to foster common interests among friendly nations so as to uphold a stable, secure region and a global order that abides by the rule of law.

Singapore diplomats and observers say these principles are few but fundamental. They include:

• Upholding international law and supporting a rules-based international order

• Staying committed to an open economy that depends on freedom of navigation in international maritime and air space

• Seeking peaceful resolution to disputes

• Being a reliable partner who respects treaties and contracts

• Adopting a realistic worldview while remembering that Singapore is a price-taker and not a price-setter in international affairs

Adherence to these principles is not just about doing the right thing. It is a matter of survival, they add.

As Professor Chan Heng Chee, a veteran diplomat, says: "As a small country, these principles are our best defence and win us respect.

"It is important to retain them because our actions are then consistent and based on reason. They are important for our self-preservation. Other countries see us as reliable and constant."

These guidelines have served Singapore well over the last 50 years.

Singapore was one of the five founding members of ASEAN in 1967, set up at the height of the Cold War to prevent larger outside powers from dominating the region.

ASEAN has fostered peace and stability in the region and created a climate where the ties that bind its various members individually and as a group are stronger than the disagreements they may have from time to time. And Singapore has reiterated the need for the grouping to be united and in control of events in its region, even as its unity has been tested on occasion.

Today, one foreign policy challenge that makes the headlines is territorial disputes in the South China Sea involving four ASEAN members. Singapore is not a claimant state, but the significance of the issue and Singapore's position on it prompted PM Lee to address it in his National Day Rally speech.

He reiterated Singapore's stance on respect for international law, freedom of navigation and the need for a united ASEAN. He also said Singapore took no sides on the overlapping territorial claims and was simply sticking to its own principled, consistent stance.


In his rally speech, PM Lee noted that "life is never so straightforward" as Singapore has had issues with its friends from time to time. Also, the interests of its friends will sometimes conflict, and Singapore will be pressured to choose sides.

Singapore has all along maintained its right to determine its own course of action and advance its people's interests, standing its ground in the face of pressure from friends. In 1994, American teenager Michael Fay was caned for vandalism, despite pressure from US officials to drop the punishment.

Singapore has also had periodic run-ins with Jakarta officials over the issue of transboundary haze emanating from fires in Indonesia.

"It's not because we love confrontation. We just stand our ground because we are a small country and need to hold on to certain principles," says senior fellow William Choong of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Asia.

Last month, Chinese state-linked newspaper Global Times accused Singapore of pushing to include an international tribunal's ruling on the South China Sea - that dismissed China's territorial claims there - in the final document of the Non-Aligned Movement summit.

The article sparked a war of words with Singapore's Ambassador to China Stanley Loh, who disputed the paper's account and said there was a common, united ASEAN position to update the document.

Despite the clarification, there was some public backlash against Singapore in China.

The incident was seen as a move by some to sway Singapore's position on the subject. It was also seen as an example of increasingly complex challenges Singapore faces as the global balance of power shifts.

In such a new and evolving global order, can Singapore's longstanding foreign policy - to be friends with all sides and take no sides - continue to be effective?

Shortly after the Global Times saga began, some commentators were quick to declare that China had embarked on a more coercive approach towards Singapore.

But outspoken career diplomat Bilahari Kausikan thinks Beijing had begun being more assertive earlier. He sees the Global Times episode as "being played out loudly in public as part of an ongoing attempt to bypass the Government and influence policy by making Singaporeans jittery".

"To understand the game is the first step in not being forced to play it," Mr Kausikan added.

Indeed, Mr Lee acknowledged in his National Day Rally speech that some Singaporeans with business and other professional partners in China are worried that any tension will hurt their dealings there.

"We want good relations with other countries if it is at all possible, but we must also be prepared for ups and downs from time to time," he said, adding that the Government had to take a national point of view and defend Singapore's overall interests.

Besides, the country's ties with China go beyond the South China Sea issue and are underpinned by decades of relations and collaboration on major projects, he added.

MP Vikram Nair, who chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for defence and foreign affairs, says some businessmen have expressed concern about the situation. But they understand why the Government was adopting such a stance on the issue, he says.

"Both sides are practical and there are many things we are working on together," Mr Nair adds.


Observers say Singapore is respected as a voice of reason abroad, thanks to its reputation of consistency and trustworthiness.

Its stature was built by decades of active participation in international bodies such as the United Nations, and by leading efforts such as starting the Forum of Small States, for nations with populations below 10 million, in 1992.

Because Singapore is not beholden to any country for aid, it is able to speak its mind and take positions of principle. As Dr Choong says: "Singapore punches above its weight in the diplomatic space."

Singapore's diplomacy has also come under the spotlight as it is country coordinator for ASEAN-China Dialogue relations till mid-2018.

Many in China believe that Singapore, with its large ethnic Chinese community, is a Chinese society that should understand and support Chinese interests.

"China expects special treatment of Chinese sensitivities and interests. There are no two ways about this," says S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies executive deputy chairman Ong Keng Yong, a veteran diplomat.

Such fundamental mismatches in the characterisation of bilateral relations are not new to Singapore.

For instance, some in Indonesia and Malaysia hold an abang-adik attitude towards the island state, treating ties as that between an older and younger brother.

But it does mean Singapore diplomats are confronted from time to time by casual remarks from Chinese counterparts on Singapore's Chinese-ness. The Singaporeans then politely but firmly remind them that Singapore is a sovereign, multiracial country, with English as its working language.

Likewise, Singapore's actions or positions in strengthening ties with other partners are not directed at any country. As PM Lee said in Canberra, the Singapore-Australia partnership is part of a network of relationships that is about strengthening regional stability, by building "an open and inclusive regional security architecture".

Key to such an architecture are basics Singapore has called for - a commitment to international law and a rules-based global order.

It also entails seeking new friendships and reinforcing old ones.

The travel PM Lee has chalked up on behalf of the country goes a long way in maintaining Singapore's international standing and relevance to its partners, says Mr Ong.

"Some of my friends living and working overseas stress to me the significance of PM Lee visiting the countries where they are in," he says. "They reminded me Singapore faces stiff competition from other countries with cheaper things to sell and more talented expertise to share. Without PM Lee's high-profile foreign visits, the goodwill and opportunities for Singapore cannot be fully tapped."


Singapore has to take the world as it is; it is too small to change it. But we can try to maximise the space we have to manoeuvre among the big 'trees' in the region. That has been our approach and we will have to be nimble and resourceful to be able to continue doing so.

- FORMER PRIME MINISTER LEE KUAN YEW, in his 2013 book One Man's View Of The World.


Running the United States is like being in command of an aircraft carrier. You will not capsize. Steering a small and young country is more like shooting rapids in a canoe. We are at the mercy of the external elements - the velocity of world trade expansion, the economic rocks, and the international political turns and twists. We need the best skills to survive the rapids.

- EMERITUS SENIOR MINISTER GOH CHOK TONG, in a 1985 speech at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Massachusetts, United States. Mr Goh was then first deputy prime minister and defence minister.


Singapore is a small country, but we do not drift aimlessly. We are not a piece of flotsam. We have a definite place in the world, and a definite view of life, and of what is right and wrong.

Whether it is 1985 or 1995, I expect that we will be guided by the same basic philosophy that every country, big or small, has a right to be itself. It has a right to live, a right to its own way of life.

From this philosophy springs our foreign policy and our defence policy. We will be friends with anyone who wishes to be friends with us. We are not, and will not, be aligned with any bloc, though our ties are closer with the West than with the Communist bloc of countries.

- MR GOH, in the same 1985 speech.


Upholding international law and the peaceful settlement of disputes is a vital interest for a small country like Singapore. When we have disputes with other countries, that is how we settle them.

In reality, big powers do not always act like that. Big powers can insist on their own interests and often do. They do not submit to adjudication by international tribunals, they may not comply with their rulings...

Nevertheless, Singapore must support and strive for a rules-based international order. We have to depend on words and treaties. They mean everything to us. We cannot afford to have international relations work on the basis that might is right. If rules do not matter, then small countries like Singapore have no chance of survival.

- PM LEE HSIEN LOONG, in his 2016 National Day Rally.


On the South China Sea, we have got our own stand, principled, consistent; different from China's, different from the Philippines or America. Other countries will persuade us to side with them, and we have to choose our own place to stand, what is in our interest, calculate it, choose the spot, stand firm.

I tell you this so that you will understand why we have to stand up for Singapore's position. Sometimes, if you read the foreign media, including the PRC media, you will find articles criticising Singapore for not siding more with them... Some Singaporeans are concerned because they have PRC friends, business partners, academic colleagues, personal contacts. They may tell you any tension between Singapore and China will affect your business, affect your collaboration.

I understand these concerns. We would like business and collaboration to continue too. If they are disrupted, both sides lose.

But the Government has to take a national point of view, decide what is in Singapore's overall interests. We want good relations with other countries... but we must also be prepared for ups and downs from time to time.

Singapore has a reputation to protect, that we have our own independent, carefully-thought-out stand. We cooperate with other countries but we make our own calculations, and that is what makes us credible, consistent, reliable, valuable to others, to ASEAN partners, to the powers - America, China, Europe. It has taken us a long time to build up this reputation and we have to be very careful to maintain it.

- PM LEE, at his 2016 National Day Rally.


We don't lash ourselves to the mast of any power but all the ones that matter. We play nice to China, but also to the US, EU, Japan as well.

Our foreign policy is multi-directional, we're not part of any exclusive alliance. We're not a formal ally of US, we've never gone down that route. In a decade where China's power is ascendant and US power somewhat shaky, this is still a good position to take going forward.

- DR WILLIAM CHOONG, Shangri-La Dialogue senior fellow for Asia-Pacific Security, International Institute for Strategic Studies.


PM Lee's visits to the US, India, China, Japan and Australia are part and parcel of Singapore's regular efforts to maintain its international profile and close relations with key foreign partners. The timing of visits depends on the host country's convenience.

It is important to bear in mind that Singapore's economy depends on these countries' economic health and the PM must continue to stay in close touch with their political and business leaders.

- AMBASSADOR ONG KENG YONG, executive deputy chairman of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Visited 6 countries in the past 3 months! TY to @SingaporeAir for taking gd care of the SG delegation. – LHL https://t.co/URM9qQWEmZ pic.twitter.com/MtMt5q5VDI
— Lee Hsien Loong (@leehsienloong) October 16, 2016



PM met President Barack Obama and was hosted to a state dinner at the White House. Mr Lee also spoke of the importance of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact to America and the region.


PM was to attend the Singapore-Indonesia Leaders' Retreat in Semarang and open the Kendal industrial park with President Joko Widodo. But he took ill at the National Day Rally and was given a week's medical leave. The retreat is scheduled to take place next month.


PM met President Xi Jinping and attended the G-20 summit in Hangzhou at Mr Xi's invitation. He also visited Chongqing for an update on the third Sino-Singapore joint project.


PM attended the ASEAN and East Asia summits. He also had introductory meetings with several regional leaders.


PM was hosted to lunch by Emperor Akihito and met Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. He also delivered a speech at a special session of the Nikkei International Conference on the Future of Asia, where he spoke about China and Japan and the need for stability in the Asia-Pacific.


PM met Prime Minister Narendra Modi and both leaders agreed to set up a committee to facilitate investments between both countries. They also agreed to expedite a review of an existing trade pact and expand cooperation in several areas. PM also visited Udaipur for the launch of a skills training institute.


PM addressed the Australian Parliament in a speech that paid tribute to the deep, lasting ties and the shared strategic outlook and social ethos of both countries. He also witnessed the signing of agreements to deepen cooperation in defence, trade, innovation, law enforcement and the arts.

Rising uncertainty: How do we respond?
Few expected Brexit, or that Donald Trump would come this far in the race for the US presidency. As the external environment becomes more challenging, what if ASEAN splinters, America withdraws its troops, or China becomes the dominant player in this region? How would Singapore respond, and what are some alternative paths open to a small island nation?
By Charissa Yong, The Sunday Times, 16 Oct 2016

The United States is in the middle of a divisive election in which both candidates have campaigned on a platform that spells a shrinking global footprint for the superpower.

It is not the only major country in the process of losing its appetite for free trade and flirting with the idea of turning insular.

This rising tide of isolationism fuelled by domestic pressures manifested itself dramatically in June with Brexit - Britons voting to leave the European Union.

Closer to home, a rising China appears to be increasingly flexing its muscles. Most recently, it has taken to pressuring smaller countries behind the scenes to adopt its stance on its territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Worse, this may completely cripple ASEAN if China is able to sway one or more member countries to take its side, causing the grouping to fail to come to a consensus on issues.

None of these trends is favourable for Singapore which, as a small country, benefits from globalisation and banding together with neighbours and therefore champions both of those things.

Yet it is not inconceivable that ASEAN could splinter, or that the US withdraws from the region, or that China grows so strong that it becomes the dominant player in the region. In such a world order, how would Singapore respond, and what are some alternative paths open to a small island nation?


Diplomats and observers The Sunday Times spoke to say that Singapore has anticipated some of these global developments.

Ambassador Ong Keng Yong, executive deputy chairman of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, says: "We take the world as it is and have no illusion about international politics."

But some constants remain.

As Ambassador Chan Heng Chee, chairman of the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities, notes: "We believe in the rule of law and abiding by international law and the peaceful settlement of disputes. Small countries need international law, otherwise might becomes right."

While Singapore might not change its principles, it is likely to adapt them to the changing world.

Amid the rebalance, for instance, it is all the more going to stick to its principles of championing international order and the rule of law.

And although the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact may be stalled, Singapore will continue to seek strong trading partners elsewhere - for instance, India - or sign bilateral trade treaties of its own.

In India earlier this month, when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was asked if he was hedging his bets against false dawns, he replied: "I am trying to bet on all the good horses."

India, he added, has had fits and starts, but has made a lot of progress since 1990.

Singapore and India upgraded their bilateral relationship to that of a strategic partnership last November, and Singapore is also in a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership with Australia.

Such ties would be useful should ASEAN experience a slowdown in growth. Singapore is also reaching out to establish and strengthen partnerships elsewhere, in continents where it has not had a strong presence till recently.

In fact, it is already making inroads in parts of the world previously less explored and seeking new opportunities for growth there.

As senior fellow William Choong of the International Institute for Strategic Studies puts it: "In finance, you don't only invest in stocks, you invest in bonds and mutual funds and other structured instruments. Likewise, ASEAN is not the only basket we've invested in.

"Singapore has very cleverly over the years - although you wouldn't hear it from a diplomat - cultivated not only its linkages to ASEAN but also to other parts of the world."

For instance, President Tony Tan Keng Yam made a state visit halfway across the world to Mexico in June, the first by a Singapore head of state to a Latin American country. While there, he called Mexico a good gateway for Singapore to grow its presence in Latin America, and pitched Singapore as a springboard for Mexico to enter Asia.

Taking presidential trips as a proxy of Singapore's foreign policy agenda, it shows that Singapore is keeping an eye on the Latin America region even though it is far away.

Mexico may also be a kindred spirit in that it is one of the 12 countries that are part of the ambitious TPP Singapore has been championing.

Singapore has also been maintaining its ties to the Nordic countries, finding common ground in preventing the melting of polar ice caps and understanding the implications that new trade routes opening up would have on Singapore's status as a sea port.

All this fits Singapore's strategy of diversification, which could well be extended in the future.

"We want to be friendly to everyone who is friendly to us," says Dr Choong. "We don't lash ourselves to the mast of any one power, but to all the ones that matter."

Singapore can also beef up its ties with partners such as Russia and the Middle East, building on PM Lee's trips to Russia for the ASEAN-Russia summit in May, and to Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories in April.


That said, Singapore - a tiny island in a tough neighbourhood - will still prioritise ASEAN.

Even though the regional grouping has come under pressure and criticism from outsiders for internal disagreements when it comes to issues such as the South China Sea, the grouping has much to celebrate when it turns 50 next year.

For one thing, South-east Asia has remained relatively peaceful since the end of the Cold War. ASEAN members have also remained largely in control when it comes to major issues in the region, and established the ASEAN Community last year.

Mr Ong, who was ASEAN secretary-general from 2003 to 2008, notes that Singapore has worked with other ASEAN states to position the grouping as a neutral regional body engaging all major powers interested in South-east Asia.

"ASEAN also avoids taking sides in any disagreement among the major powers and upholds the principle of not being a proxy of any external power," he says.

Significantly, with hundreds of meetings yearly at various levels - from youth exchanges to ministerial conferences - ASEAN has engendered a deep layer of cooperation that cuts across multiple fields, from agricultural and environmental partnerships to cooperation in financial services and cyber security.

Adds Mr Ong: "Of course, there will be bumps on this journey of regional camaraderie, but staying

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