COS 2021: Relationship with US and China

Mr Dennis Tan Lip Fong: Singapore’s foreign policy towards the US and China has been one where we have reiterated that we do not wish to choose sides and want to retain the ability to make choices for ourselves.

Our Prime Minister has even implored both Beijing and Washington to stabilise the US-China relationship and focus on building constructive ties. This position rests on the view that many areas of significant overlap in interest exists between the US and China, and will continue to exist if not expend. But this does seem at odds with recent global developments.

Mr Chairman, I think it is clear that the world has entered a new phase of renewed major power rivalry between the US and China. Many are now familiar with US President Joe Biden’s foreseeing extreme competition in US-China relations and General Secretary Xi Jinping’s framing of a wide range of issues as PRC’s core interests that the US should respect. A recent South China Morning Post editorial even noted that disputes between China and the US appear unavoidable.

Realistically, no amount of pleading or reasoning from Singapore is ultimately going to change minds in either Washington or Beijing. Any believe that a Kumbaya moment will come at any time soon, may be optimistic, but potentially naive.

As a smaller actor, Singapore will probably do well to be prepared for the worst that may yet to come. Given the current trajectory in US-China relations and the very real possibility of a more tense environment, several key questions loom large with Singapore.

I would like to ask the Minister to spend some time in laying out Singapore’s strategic vision to deal with the potential challenges that lie ahead.

First, I would like to ask, how Singapore’s autonomy and freedom of action can be protected under the more contentious circumstances that we find ourselves in today? Second, how will Singapore maintain positive and robust ties with the two majors, competing against one another without getting drawn unnecessarily into the friction and risk being ground up in the process? Third, how does Singapore avoid one party perceiving our efforts to stand for our own interests as being detrimental to theirs, and earning suspicion for siding with their rival?

Let me be clear. I am not asking for operational details. I am asking these questions because Singaporeans need to understand and by into the Government’s strategic vision on these aspects of our foreign and even security policies and the guiding principles there too, for us to have any chance at success in navigating these very tricky waters. 

Ministry of Foreign Affairs
1 March 2021

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