Lee-Trump visit underscores Singapore’s balancing act
At the same time as he has been trying to repair relations with China, Singapore's PM has tried to reaffirm bilateral cooperation with US
Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong held talks with US President Donald Trump in the Oval Office this week to reaffirm bilateral cooperation amid considerable anxieties about US commitments to free-trade multilateralism and long-standing alliances across Asia.
Lee, the fourth Southeast Asian leader to visit the White House, is on a six-day working visit to Washington at the invitation of the president. Both countries share a “deep and multi-faceted relationship” based on a “basic strategic congruence of views about the world and the region,” Lee said during a television interview with CNBC.
The US administration’s emphasis on creating job opportunities for Americans has not been lost on the Singaporean delegation, nor the other Southeast Asian leaders who have visited Washington under Trump’s tenure.
The two leaders oversaw a deal between Singapore Airlines and Boeing for the national carrier to buy 39 new planes, worth US$13.8 billion. Fulfilling that order will create 70,000 jobs in the US, according to Trump, who said the US-Singapore relationship was “now is at its highest point” and that his country was “fortunate to have such a wonderful and loyal partner”.
In remarks to the media, the US president lauded Singapore’s recent assistance during Hurricane Harvey and its role in searching for missing American sailors after a US warship, the USS John S McCain, collided with an oil tanker in waters near Singapore in August.
Lee, one of the most persistent advocates of a robust US presence in the Asia-Pacific region, surely sought clarity on the Trump administration’s wider strategy for Asia during his discussions, particularly on economic and trade policies after the US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a multilateral trade agreement the city-state co-founded and fervently lobbied in favor of.
Speaking to American business leaders at The Economic Club of Washington, DC, Singapore’s prime minister addressed the Trump administration’s “radically different approach” but attempted to put a positive spin on economic ties, noting how the US trades more with Asia-Pacific nations than with Europe. He urged US businesses to sustain their economic engagement of Asia and uphold free-trade multilateralism.
Lee, one of the most persistent advocates of a robust US presence in the Asia-Pacific region, surely sought clarity on the Trump administration’s wider strategy for Asia during his discussions, particularly on economic and trade policies
Singapore’s leadership had been noticeably uncomfortable with Trump’s “America First” rhetoric during the long tumult of last year’s US presidential campaign. Analysts surmised that the city-state’s leadership was caught off balance by assuming a Hillary Clinton victory. Trump’s unexpected win came as Singapore experienced an uneasy downturn in relations with China, its largest trading partner, over strategic and sovereign issues.
Finding itself in a precarious alignment vis-à-vis both global powers, Singapore’s leadership has taken on a complex, multi-sided balancing act. The city-state maintains the US is a guarantor of stability in Asia but appears at pains to rationalize that claim under an unpredictable administration. Singapore’s leaders may believe safeguarding their interests in the Trump era requires doubling down on deference to American power.
On the other hand, China’s leadership is suspicious of Singapore’s pro-American security orientation and its role in promoting the US position over China’s activities in the South China Sea. Tensions with Beijing have abated for the moment, after Lee’s recent visit to China aimed at normalizing ties, though some analysts believe it would not take much to unsettle the relationship all over again.
“It is difficult to imagine a national leadership anywhere in the world more in sync with Washington than Singapore’s – at least on international issues. Yet this is where their problems with China begin,” writes Michael Barr, associate professor of international relations at Flinders University, Australia.
“Dealing with both Xi and Trump would have been a tough enough problem for any Singaporean leader, but thanks to his earlier blundering, he now needs to tread with particular care. Hence a quietly successful trip that can be played up to his domestic constituency is very much the order of the day.”
Singapore hosts a key US logistics base serving the United States Pacific Fleet, and rotationally hosts US littoral warships and aircraft that conduct reconnaissance in the South China Sea. When the Philippines failed to agree on terms that would solidify a US military presence at Subic Bay during the 1990s, Singapore stepped in.
The US and Singapore signed an enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement in December 2015 that enabled the first P-8 Poseidon spy plane to be deployed to the city-state in response to China’s pursuit of its territorial claims in the South China Sea. The US remains the heaviest foreign user of Singapore’s Changi Naval Base and Paya Lebar Air Base, to the chagrin of Beijing.
In his remarks to Trump at the White House, Lee urged the new administration to build a good relationship with China, saying that Singapore and other regional countries “watch your relations with China very closely” and view it as “the most important bilateral relationship in the world”.
While the city-state has been supportive of pushing back against China over its territorial claims to some degree, analysts say Singapore’s leadership have concerns that poor management of Sino-US ties by the Trump administration could result in a military standoff or a trade war that would undermine regional stability and the trade-reliant island’s own core interests.
Lee presumably raised these concerns during discussions with Trump, while reiterating the need for a new economic initiative from Washington, as China’s Belt and Road Initiative gains momentum. During the Barack Obama administration, Singapore’s prime minister staunchly lobbied for the ratification of the TPP, calling it a “litmus test of credibility” for the US in the eyes of Asia-Pacific nations that had begun to cast doubt on Washington’s staying power.
Lee and other top officials in Singapore defended the TPP almost exclusively around the reputational damage it would cause to US prestige if the accord failed to materialize. The multilateral trade deal had not been ratified by a divided US Congress and was nixed in an executive order signed by Trump during the first week of his presidency.
Japan has since taken the lead on discussions with participating countries on forging ahead on their own to salvage the TPP without the US, while China’s attempt to forge a rival trade pact, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), is under way, though it faces challenges over concerns that some members may exit the deal to prioritize the TPP.
While Lee remarked during his CNBC interview that it was the wrong time to start new multilateral initiatives with the US, he is almost certainly encouraging the Trump administration behind the scenes to introduce a comprehensive economic initiative that would further the strategic objectives of the Obama-era pivot to Asia.
Singapore’s leadership is also watching how the Trump administration deals with the North American Free Trade Agreement and the US-Korea FTA (KORUS) trade deal and to what extent it forces coercive renegotiations. A bilateral trade agreement between the US and Singapore was established in 2004 by which Washington has consistently enjoyed large trade surpluses with Singapore, making it unlikely that the Trump administration would target it with any punitive trade actions.