Sin­ga­pore may prove tough nut for China

Kuwait Times - - ANALYSIS -

As the im­pound­ing of Sin­ga­porean troop car­ri­ers in Hong Kong ex­poses ris­ing ten­sions be­tween China and Sin­ga­pore, the Lion City is un­likely to budge on core se­cu­rity in­ter­ests con­cern­ing Bei­jing - its mil­i­tary re­la­tion­ship with Tai­wan, wor­ries over the South China Sea and its host­ing of the US mil­i­tary. Sin­ga­porean of­fi­cials, re­tired mil­i­tary of­fi­cers and an­a­lysts stress that even while Sin­ga­pore pub­licly plays down the spat, its lead­er­ship will not eas­ily give in to what it sees as in­tim­i­da­tion on mat­ters of na­tional im­por­tance.

All three points - Tai­wan, the South China Sea and its deep­en­ing re­la­tion­ship with the Pen­tagon - re­flect po­si­tions re­fined over decades as the tiny is­land state seeks to se­cure it­self in a re­gion now un­der­go­ing his­toric strate­gic shifts amid China’s rise. But those shifts mean the pres­sure is in­ten­si­fy­ing and Sin­ga­pore risks be­ing iso­lated as neigh­bors in­clud­ing the Philip­pines, a US ally, and Malaysia tilt to­wards Bei­jing.

“Sin­ga­pore will not be bul­lied and backed up against a wall,” said Tim Hux­ley, an ex­pert on Sin­ga­pore’s mil­i­tary at the In­ter­na­tional In­sti­tute for Strate­gic Stud­ies. “(It) will take a de­ter­mined stand on is­sues that it sees as im­por­tant - and the im­por­tance of the is­sues at hand should not be un­der­es­ti­mated.” Hong Kong cus­toms last week seized nine ar­mored troop car­ri­ers be­ing shipped from Tai­wan to Sin­ga­pore af­ter mil­i­tary ex­er­cises, prompt­ing warn­ings from Bei­jing about main­tain­ing ties with an is­land it re­gards as a break­away province.

‘Van­guard of Anti-China Coali­tion’

The dis­pute has erupted at a pe­riod of ap­par­ent vul­ner­a­bil­ity for Sin­ga­pore, with its econ­omy slow­ing and ques­tions over the trade and se­cu­rity poli­cies of in­com­ing US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump. Sin­ga­pore has en­hanced its long stand­ing se­cu­rity re­la­tions with Wash­ing­ton over the last 18 months, and now hosts re­volv­ing de­ploy­ments of ves­sels and US P-8 sur­veil­lance planes that re­gional mil­i­tary sources say rou­tinely tar­get Chi­nese sub­marines.

While not a for­mal US al­liance part­ner, re­gional diplo­mats say it has be­come Wash­ing­ton’s most im­por­tant mil­i­tary re­la­tion­ship in South­east Asia - more so since Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte’s Philip­pine elec­tion win. The shift has not gone un­no­ticed in Bei­jing. “Sin­ga­pore has gone from be­ing seen as a use­ful fa­cil­i­ta­tor of US-China re­la­tions to be­ing in the van­guard of an anti-China coali­tion, par­tic­u­larly on the South China Sea,” said Zhang Bao­hui, a main­land se­cu­rity scholar at Hong Kong’s Ling­nan Univer­sity. “The days of Bei­jing com­fort­ably see­ing Sin­ga­pore has vaguely neu­tral are over, and it is reacting ac­cord­ingly.”

China will find Sin­ga­pore harder to crack than other coun­tries in its or­bit, how­ever, as it less be­holden to Chi­nese se­cu­rity or eco­nomic pres­sure, given its ad­vanced mar­ket sta­tus and in­ter­na­tional se­cu­rity re­la­tion­ships, in­clud­ing with the United States, he said. “China will find Sin­ga­pore de­fi­ant and able to with­stand pres­sure, but Sin­ga­pore will find it­self los­ing in­flu­ence and more iso­lated within South­east Asia as coun­tries in­creas­ingly look to China,” Zhang said.

Other Is­sues at Play

Since the seizure of the ar­mored ve­hi­cles, Bei­jing has stressed its op­po­si­tion to any form of of­fi­cial con­tact with Tai­wan. The in­flu­en­tial state-run tabloid, the Global Times, has been more stri­dent, sug­gest­ing the car­ri­ers should be “melted down”. While other state me­dia have run com­men­taries crit­i­cal of Sin­ga­pore through the year, they have been quiet on the troop car­rier im­pound­ing.

Sin­ga­pore has dis­creetly cir­cu­lated thou­sands of troops a year through Tai­wan since 1975 - a pres­ence that sur­vived for­mal­iz­ing ties with Bei­jing un­der a “one China” pol­icy in the early 1990s. While Sin­ga­pore in­creas­ingly ex­ploits fa­cil­i­ties in Aus­tralia and In­dia, as well as send­ing troops to Brunei and Thai­land, Tai­wan re­mains an im­por­tant to Sin­ga­pore given the depth of mil­i­tary links and di­verse train­ing op­tions, ex­perts and re­tired Sin­ga­porean of­fi­cers say.

Sin­ga­pore has also played a role as a diplo­matic bridge be­tween the two sides, most re­cently host­ing the his­toric meet­ing be­tween out­go­ing Tai­wanese Pres­i­dent Ma Ying-jeou and Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping in Nov 2015. Sin­ga­pore’s Min­is­ter of For­eign Af­fairs Vi­vian Balakr­ish­nan this week sought to play down the seizure, say­ing it was “not a strate­gic in­ci­dent” and that Sin­ga­pore’s re­la­tion­ship with Tai­wan was known to China. But be­hind the scenes, re­gional diplo­mats say their Chi­nese coun­ter­parts are also mak­ing clear their ris­ing con­cern at US sur­veil­lance ac­tiv­i­ties off coasts from as­sets sta­tioned around the re­gion.

Ad­vanced P-8 air­craft es­pe­cially are viewed by Chi­nese strate­gists as a threat to Bei­jing’s evolv­ing nu­clear de­ter­rent, cen­tered on bal­lis­tic mis­sile sub­marines sta­tioned on Hainan Is­land. “They are re­lent­less on this point,” one Western diplo­mat said. “They don’t want to ac­cept it as nor­mal in any way.”

Chi­nese of­fi­cials and state me­dia have ac­cused Sin­ga­pore of in­ter­na­tion­al­iz­ing mat­ters in the South China Sea, where it is not a claimant. While Sin­ga­pore in­sists it does not take sides in the dis­putes, it has stressed the im­por­tance of free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion and in­ter­na­tional norms. As ne­go­ti­a­tions con­tinue over the fate of the troop car­ri­ers, Sin­ga­pore’s Am­bas­sador-at-Large Bi­la­hari Kausikan made clear the is­sues went deeper than mil­i­tary ma­teriel.

Con­tem­po­rary China was “cu­ri­ous mix­ture of as­sertive­ness and in­se­cu­rity”, Kausikan wrote on Face­book this week, adding he be­lieved its lead­ers wanted to pre­serve the broader re­la­tion­ship. “We are a small coun­try and larger coun­tries not just China - rou­tinely try in­tim­i­da­tion. But be­cause China wants us to ac­cept the ap­pel­la­tion of ‘Chi­nese coun­try’ and be­cause so many Sin­ga­pore­ans are of Chi­nese de­scent, their ac­tions have a spe­cial res­o­nance.” — Reuters

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