Last month the Atlantic Council held an event addressing Singapore’s response to rising US-China tensions with Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong. In 2004 Lee became the third prime minister of the small Southeast Asian country, which became independent in 1965.
Singapore has close relations with both the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Though not a formal treaty ally, Singapore is an important strategic partner of the US in Asia, cooperating with it militarily. The two also share close economic ties. Meanwhile, China is Singapore’s biggest trading partner (as is true for nearly every other ASEAN country and all other US treaty allies in the region). Singapore is a large foreign investor in China and has agreed to work with it on several Belt and Road Initiative projects in other countries. However, with an ethnically Chinese majority, Singapore is careful not to be perceived as a pawn of China. Singapore was the last country in Southeast Asia to formally recognize the PRC. The two have some ongoing disagreements, for example over Singapore’s close ties with Taiwan.
The Problem & Lee’s Position
Recently, US-China tensions have been rising at alarming rates. Singapore is not directly involved in this escalation but, due to its ties with both countries, will be heavily affected by the future of US-China relations. At the Atlantic Council event, Lee said that he fears two outcomes—first, the US colliding with China, and second, the US deciding it has no stake in the region and leaving other Asian countries to their own defenses.
Lee made clear that Singapore does not want to choose sides between the US and China. Rather, he hopes to maintain beneficial relationships with both countries. As he wrote in an article for Foreign Affairs, “Asian countries see the United States as a resident power that has vital interests in the region. At the same time, China is a reality on the doorstep… Southeast Asian countries, including Singapore, are especially concerned, as they live at the intersection of the interests of various major powers and must avoid being caught in the middle or forced into invidious choices.”
Lee’s Three Wishes
Lee offered three recommendations for the US government to enhance its relationships in Asia in the context of US-China tensions. First, he recommended the US and China stabilize their relationship. Lee explained that Asia depends on this stability to have a secure, predictable environment in which it can operate confidently and freely. This has been true historically—after World War II, the United States provided for Asia’s stability and prosperity by providing security guarantees and supporting an open, rules-based order that bolstered regional integration. Yet as China has risen, Asian countries like Singapore have benefitted from its growth as well. The importance of both the US and China in Asia means that Asian countries depend on a stable relationship between them to maintain an environment conducive to security and growth. If the US was to leave the region or seriously collide with China (Lee’s two fears), Asia would suffer.
Second, Lee recommended that the US work toward bipartisan consensus on its China policy. While Republicans and Democrats now agree that increasingly tough policy toward China is necessary, disagreements about what this means and how far it should go remain. Lee highlighted a specific need for continuity between US administrations so that policies are enduring and reliable. He cited the way the Trump administration veered from what Singapore deemed a promising posture under Obama, and made clear that predictable stability is Singapore’s top priority.
Third, Lee asked that the US come back to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement between 12 Pacific counties, including Singapore, which the US signed in February 2016 but left under Trump in 2017. Lee argued that the TPP would have advanced US interests, promoted rules-based cooperation and regional integration, and raised standards for trade and economic exchange. Such an assessment is accurate and important in the context of China’s rise. Beyond the economic benefits predicted for all signatories, the TPP had a clear geopolitical purpose that favored US interests by working against Chinese economic domination and strengthening America’s ties with other signing countries. Analysts argue that on top of decreasing the dependence of Pacific countries on Chinese markets, the deal “would have pressured China’s economy to meet higher standards—including on environmental, labor, and intellectual property rights issues—or risk being disadvantaged in [trade].” In other words, the TPP would have helped mold the region in a way that benefits America’s interests.
Thankfully, following the US backout of the TPP, the 11 remaining countries negotiated a similar new agreement called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). CPTPP members made provisions for the US to rejoin; this is the source of Lee’s hope for US cooperation.
A Criticism of Lee
During the event, Prime Minister Lee did not address the political and ideological threats that China poses to the order Singapore has benefitted from. Lee saw the benefit of working with both sides and avoiding conflict, but he didn’t adequately address the negatives of this approach beyond giving hope that differences could be managed. Even if his conclusion is respectable, China presents significant dangers that countries need to consider. China is rationally seeking geopolitical influence while developing economic and military power, but its conceptions of governance and morality are problematic and contradict the international liberal order. For example, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) understands that democratic values threaten its authoritarian regime; this influences it to undermine the broader international system. The CCP also violates its citizens’ religious liberty, works to thin out global human rights standards, and shows complete disdain for international rules where they do not suit its objectives, such as those concerning the South China Sea. The US needs to confront such challenges directly, not just ignore them in hope of an easy peace.
The Insight of Lee
What Lee does offer is wisdom about how America should proceed with caution in its response to China, consider others, and remove the blinders of unilateralism that have characterized the Trump administration. The first of these three, caution, is the defining feature of Lee’s position. Lee demonstrates caution by refraining from making hasty judgments pitting the US and China against one another in an intractable struggle for global hegemony. This is wise. Jumping to conclusions about China’s goals and resolve could lead to dangerous policy choices that only deepen distrust and confrontation between the US and China. Lee (alongside many of America’s other allies) seems to calculate that China’s aspirations are limited or at least can be mediated by good policy, if not changed. The US should consider these reasonable, even if unlikely, possibilities, wary of the fact that Thucydides-trap wars require both a rising power and an anxious hegemon.
Rather than advocate policy premised on assumptions, Lee reminds us of the high costs that would come for Asia if we could not find a modus vivendi with China. In many ways, our relationship with China could end up affecting countries like Singapore more than it affects us. We should take responsibility for this fact and carefully consider the interests of our allies. We would also be wise to recognize the value of our partnerships that provide a counterweight to China, such as those established through platforms like the TPP.
The careful nuance of cooperating with China in some areas, tolerating it in others, and confronting it where needed will seem unsatisfying to those who wish for a simple framework in which to think of and act toward Beijing. Authors in this publication have rightly observed that it is idealism to believe China will simply integrate into the international order through domestic liberalization. But on the opposite side of an easy integration is another variety of idealism: a perfectionist attitude that snuffs out all of China’s authoritarian tendencies and leaves it a pacified state without any outlets or desire for international influence. This is simply not realistic, and as Lee observes, will only make matters worse. Our Christian faith informs us that while we should do our best to defend our values, we also need to recognize the practical limits of working in a fallen world. Let us tread that line carefully.