“Going forward, Singapore may have to demonstrate visible leadership on tricky issues --from managing disputes to regulating regional relations or tackling cross-border crime--. This means taking political risks. Singapore can no longer simply hope for a happy middle ground between Washington and Beijing”.
A key feature of Singapore’s foreign and security policy is to not ‘choose sides’ between the US and China. Singapore’s approach has relied on substantive overlaps in US and Chinese strategic interests. But changing strategic orientations in Beijing and Washington now see greater Chinese willingness to apply pressure to achieve its interests, as well as less US attentiveness to the region. Singapore’s traditional political space may be shrinking. Differing perspectives on the South China Sea territorial disputes, the nature of Singapore–US ties and Singapore’s unilateral military training in Taiwan have made it a target for popular and official criticism in China. Beijing snubbed Singapore by not inviting its Prime Minister to the inaugural Belt and Road Forum. China warns Singapore ‘not to take sides’ when it articulates positions that depart from China’s, even when its statements simply reflect Singapore’s own interests. China prefers silence from Singapore on key issues. Also the past year has seen Washington’s Asia policy shift from opposing China’s expansive maritime claims to disinterest in the region. The range of options for Singapore when it comes to not choosing sides is shrinking. Should the US cede its Asian influence to China, not choosing sides may mean that Singapore should refrain from anything Beijing finds objectionable. It’s increasingly restricted options may limit it to a policy of strict neutrality that leaves both Washington and Beijing dissatisfied. That would invite the US and China to coerce Singapore into a sympathetic position or result in the city-state’s isolation. It may have to accept ‘Finlandisation’ in the face of Chinese regional primacy, deferring to China on foreign policy but keeping nominal independence.