Singapore’s China-India Balancing Act

Singapore needs India for security partnership, but China for economic ties.

Singapore’s China-India Balancing Act
Credit: Flickr/ Indian Ministry of External Affairs

A series of bilateral events in 2017 signaled a new warmth in the China-Singapore relationship. After Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s visit to Beijing in September 2017, more and more commentators became optimistic about China-Singapore relations. Nearly at the same time, the relationship between Singapore and India has moved into a new stage. Although these issues seem to be unconnected, they are the two sides of the same coin, part of Singapore’s balancing diplomacy. At the same time, Singapore is emphasizing the importance of security cooperation with India while paying more attention to economic interactions with Beijing under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

The ties between Singapore and India are getting closer, particularly when it comes to strategic cooperation. The two states inked a bilateral agreement on air force training cooperation in 2007 (and renewed the agreement in both 2012 and 2017), an army bilateral agreement in 2008, and have held a regular bilateral maritime exercise since 1994. On November 29, 2017, India and Singapore exchanged documents on bilateral naval cooperation and agreed to increase cooperation in maritime security, increase visits to each other’s ports, and facilitate mutual logistics support. With this robust security cooperation, the city state secured an all-around security ally that could help to train Singapore’s military force and guarantee the stability of the Malacca Strait.

In addition, economic interactions between Singapore and India are durable, based on the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) signed in 2005 and the amendment of the Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement, signed in December 2016. Almost 8,000 Indian companies have registered in the city-state so far, making India the largest foreign corporate contingent in Singapore. As Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said this week, Singapore is “a good base for Indian companies to work from in order to expand to Southeast Asia and beyond.”

When it comes to China, the economic relations between Singapore and Beijing are always robust: Singapore’s investments in China account for nearly 85 percent of the total inbound investments China has received from Belt and Road countries, and bilateral trade between China and Singapore was estimated at more than $65 billion in 2016, accounting for nearly 13 percent of Singapore’s global trade. Compared with the India-Singapore relationship, the current favorable China-Singapore relationship is rooted mostly in the tight economic cooperation between China and Singapore under the BRI rather than comprehensive national cooperation. What is more, Beijing’s robust economic and political influence has made Singapore become more sensitive and cautious regarding bilateral political relations. Although there are more cultural interactions between Singapore and China, Singapore always tries its best to exclude China’s political influence and emphasize its independent diplomacy, as seen when Professor Huang Jing of the  Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy was identified as “an agent of influence of a foreign country” and expelled from Singapore. As for the security aspect, the new round of army and naval exercises between China and Singapore has yet to be carried out.

While Singapore and Beijing share more economic interests under the Belt and Road, both Singapore and India seek to counterbalance China’s robust rise for security reasons. From the city-state’s perspective, balancing diplomacy between Beijing and New Delhi is a good choice. Singapore’s Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen, speaking at Brookings India, noted that India could help to strengthen the regional security architecture as a stabilizing force and add a wider perspective and more robust balance beyond the U.S.-China strategic rivalry at play. Such strategic recognition is not something new. In the book Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World, the “founding father” of Singapore is cited as saying that India is the proper choice to counterbalance the rise of China.

In the past, the city-state’s safety relied on the United States at the international level and on cooperation with India at the regional level. But now, with the continuation of the “America First” policy and China’s robust rise, Singapore needs a strong security guarantee in the Asia-Pacific region in case of the United States’ full withdrawal. India is the only choice. To some degree, India has replaced the United States as a player in Singapore’s counterbalancing game while waiting on President Donald Trump’s Indo-Pacific strategy. As for China, which has huge political and economic strength and controls an economic initiative encompassing almost 60 countries, Singapore needs a stable economic relationship and seeks to achieve economic recovery by joining the Belt and Road.

Although Singapore’s chairmanship of ASEAN provide an attractive chance for both China and India to to promote their cooperation with ASEAN, Singapore will keep its balance and will not totally side with either.

Yu Fu is a research assistant at the School of International Studies/Academy of Overseas Chinese Studies/Institute for 21st Century Silk Road Studies at Jinan University in China and a researcher at the Intellisia Instituite.