The signing of two memorandums of understanding between Singapore and the United States on February 1 demonstrates Singapore’s growing willingness to do two things: 1) take the lead in Southeast Asia as well as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations; and 2) position itself as a key point of access for U.S. diplomacy in the region. The meeting between the nations also shows the value that the United States places on closer ties with Singapore as a way of integrating into Southeast Asia.
The joint statement issued by Singapore Foreign Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton following their meeting makes clear that both countries gain value from an “enhanced political and economic dialogue.”
Despite a small blip in 1988, the two countries have traditionally maintained positive and reciprocal relations, especially in trade. Economic relations between the United States and Singapore have been especially vibrant since the two nations signed a free trade agreement in 2003 under the George W. Bush Administration. The FTA has been an incredible success for both countries. In 2011, Singapore was the United States’ 15th largest trading partner, despite its small size and population. Between the two, they conducted $46.4 billion worth of trade.
Beyond simple economics, evidence from statements made by Singapore’s leadership suggests that they support closer relations with the United States on geopolitical grounds as well. They see the United States as a counterweight to balance China’s rise. Last month, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria interviewed Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Lee described the U.S. presence in the region as “still welcome and…benign.” He went on to add, “And that is really a good example for the Chinese to seek to emulate.”
Lee’s father, former Singapore Prime Minister and influential Southeast Asian statesman Lee Kuan Yew, has been especially willing to voice his views on the role the United States should take against the backdrop of Chinese growth. On a number of occasions he has echoed the sentiment that the region need the U.S. “to strike a balance.” This idea of balance was repeated once more by Singapore Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen at the Munich Security Conference in Germany on February 6. He described the United States as providing “the security that underpins the stability and remarkable economic progress” of the Asia-Pacific nations.
Interestingly, it’s within the context of larger frameworks – the Asia-Pacific and Southeast Asia – that Singapore often speaks at present. The Malaysian government’s national news agency Bernama, for example, described the agreements between the United States and Singapore as to the “benefit of the Asia-Pacific region.” If Malaysia and other countries in Southeast Asia are willing to accept the argument that what benefits one of them can benefit all, then the goals of connectivity that ASEAN aspires to may well become a reality.
And arguably strengthening this region’s organizations and treaties will benefit the United States too. ASEAN is a good example of the type of regional body that can facilitate business opportunities for American companies while acting as a diplomatic and economic buffer to China. Moreover, with improved internal capacity, it might emerge as a competitor to Chinese economic hegemony. Whether this possibility materializes will depend on nations like the United States taking ASEAN seriously and investing time and effort cultivating a relationship with its member states. As recent tensions over control of the South China Sea proved, ASEAN hasn’t traditionally functioned very effectively as a unit.
Yet Shanmugam’s visit to the United States may very well mark a subtle shift in both how the United States interacts with ASEAN – and how ASEAN states see themselves. This is because Singapore used its meeting with the United States to advocate on behalf of another ASEAN member, Burma. Amid great publicity the United States has restored normal diplomatic relations with Burma over the course of the last few months. While this is rightly heralded as a major change of course for both the United States and Burma, the U.S. still maintains economic sanctions on the country.
According to Shanmugam, he encouraged Clinton during their meeting to lift these sanctions. Whether the United States does this is another matter, but it’s exactly the type of regional-centric behavior that the West should hope to see develop in Southeast Asia.
David Matthew is an analyst at SinoNK.com and writes for NKNews.org.