What Joe Biden’s Win Mean for Singapore, Explained

It is the fall of 2017 and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is in the White House at the invitation of President Donald Trump. While this may be Mr. Lee’s ninth visit since taking office, it also seems a bit different than the others. Now more than ever, American rhetoric coming from the top is isolationist. The Trump administration has challenged and upended years of relative diplomatic continuity in Asia. The question of what can we do together has now changed to what’s in it for us. America First hasn’t even spared the closest of allies – NATO, South Korea and Japan have been told to pull their weight militarily and financially. The Prime Minister seems all too aware of these changing realities. In a rather unusual move, Singapore Airline’s CEO has been brought along as part of the Singaporean delegation. He is seated in the Roosevelt Room along with his counterpart from Boeing to sign a deal to buy 39 aircrafts. It doesn’t matter that the deal was previously announced in February, or that it was probably negotiated under the watch of the previous administration. It’s a talking point for a president who rose to power promising to revive domestic manufacturing. Reading from a small white card, Mr. Trump announces that the deal would be worth US$13 billion and that it would support 70,000 jobs. He then hovers over Boeing’s CEO, repeatedly and suggestively asking him if the 70,000 jobs supported were in America. 

(Source)

“If not, you can cancel the deal,” Mr. Trump jokingly tells the Singaporean delegation. 

Mr. Lee stands next to him laughing, albeit uncomfortably. 

The moment is emblematic of US-Singapore ties under the Trump Administration. The relationship is still robust and comprehensive, although there is a level of unease coming from some quarters in Singapore. As the dust settles on this year’s U.S. presidential election, Mr. Joe Biden has clearly emerged as the winner.

The question then becomes: what does a Biden presidency mean for Singapore?

Singapore – America Relations: A Cheat Sheet

Mr. Biden greets sailors on board the USS Freedom, deployed in Changi Naval Base, 2013. (Source)

Well to answer that question, there first needs to be an understanding of why Singapore has such close ties to the U.S. in the first place. The city state has been one of America’s most committed partners in South-East Asia because it believes that American presence has underpinned regional growth and peace. The partnership also reflects a deep-seated sense of vulnerability. By having the superpower play a role in regional affairs, it is hoped that Singapore’s own sovereignty and autonomy are preserved. Two factors lead to this acute sense of insecurity. 

Historically, Singapore has had fraught relationships with its immediate neighbours – Indonesia and Malaysia. While these ties have since stabilised and are generally cordial, Singaporean officials are still cautious of what a hostile government or ethnic conflict in these countries could mean for Singapore’s autonomy. To a Brookings Institution researcher in 2016, a senior Singaporean official warned that the political and social space for non-Muslims in Malaysia was “narrowing significantly” and that race relations still remained “fraught” and “unpredictable”. Considering that Singapore’s ethnic demographics represent a mirror image (between Chinese and Malays) of Malaysia’s, there seems to be a fear of what this could represent for the island. All of this contributes to a siege mentality of sorts in Singapore’s view of foreign affairs. Thus, by establishing close ties with the Americans, Singapore gains access to high tech defence equipment – like the F-35 stealth fighter – to keep a military edge over its neighbours.  The partnership also introduces the possibility of U.S. political or military intervention in favour of Singapore if tensions escalate. 

The second threat revolves around the uncertainties that an increasingly assertive China poses to Singapore’s multi-cultural fabric. While the regional threat is relatively low and has declined substantially, some experts believe that pressures from China are real and rising. Retired diplomat Bilahari Kausikan for example thinks that from 2016 to 2017, China asserted substantial pressure on Singapore through a covert influence operation.  Narratives about China’s inevitable rise and the U.S.’s decline were propagated through WeChat, social media, business associations and whispering campaigns. An approximate cause for this downturn in relations would be Singapore becoming ASEAN’s country coordinator for China in 2015. Being a country coordinator, Singapore was to try and get a common position between the ten members of ASEAN in the relationship with China. “Somehow Beijing seems to have convinced itself that the role of country coordinator entails Singapore coordinating ASEAN’s position on China’s behalf, which is a complete reversal of what the coordinator is supposed to do,” said Mr. Kausikan in a lecture to N.U.S. students. These expectations might exist because Singapore is the only country that has a Chinese majority population outside of greater China (Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau, P.R.C.). As such, Mr. Kausikan postulates that China views Singapore as a “Chinese country” that would “take China’s part regardless of national interest”.

Thus, Singapore probably hopes that American engagement in the region would act as a counterbalance for Chinese assertiveness. The idea here isn’t to demonise China or to ally with the Americans. In fact, Singapore recognises China’s importance and goes out of its way to prove that its truly neutral. In 2003, for example, the city-state reportedly turned down a U.S. offer of Major Non-NATO Ally status. Singaporean ministers in interviews with foreign news channels like CNN, always point out that Singapore is a ‘close strategic partner’ and not an ally of the U.S. The reality is that China is still the island’s biggest trading partner and that Singapore’s leaders have always advocated for Beijing to play a larger role in the international order. It’s just that Singapore’s best interests are protected by preventing the regional dominance of any power – be it America or China. 

So how would a Biden presidency change things?

More engagement 

(Source)

A concerning trend that developed under the Trump administration is a partial retreat or a lack of interest in South-East Asia. Mr. Trump himself has skipped multiple high-level ASEAN summits and has only payed lip service to the region by holding his meetings with Mr. Kim Jong Un in Singapore and in Hanoi. During last year’s ASEAN – U.S. summit for example, the U.S. sent the National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien – who doesn’t even hold a cabinet level position – to the meeting. In response, only three ASEAN premiers turned up at the summit. The seven other countries were represented by foreign ministers instead. “This was a protest against ‘the O’Brien shock,” an ASEAN diplomatic source told Nikkei Asia. The indifference finds its way into trade as well. Usually, Washington opposes any trade agreements in Asia that didn’t include itself. This time around, America has shown little interest in ASEAN members states, China, and a few other countries signing the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Mr. Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the Trans Pacific Partnership (T.P.P.) and his isolationist rhetoric has also ruffled some feathers in the region. 

To add to this, the Trump years have seen the State Department (the American equivalent of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) be gutted, politicised and ‘slashed’. Many career diplomats and Foreign Service Officers were purged by the Trump administration and resignations rose substantially. Just one year into Mr. Trump’s presidency, 60 percent of top-ranking career diplomats resigned and new applications to join the foreign service fell by half. Nowhere is this more apparent than in South-East Asia, which has multiple diplomatic posts unfilled. Singapore, for example, still does not have an American ambassador assigned to it. 

All of this might be a concern for Singapore as it upsets the delicate regional balance that was talked about earlier. In the vacuum of Washington’s influence, China might emerge to be the sole superpower that exercises regional dominance. Considering this, Beijing might have increased expectations on Singapore. If all other ASEAN countries – none of which have a Chinese majority population – acts according to China’s interests, why shouldn’t Singapore? While at the moment, ASEAN elites’ trust of China is still low, Beijing’s influence seems to be increasing. Most ASEAN countries now have China as its largest trading partner, and as part of the Belt and Road initiative, investments into the region has intensified. The RCEP also shows the willingness of ASEAN leaders to go at it alone with or without American involvement.  

A Biden presidency offers hopes of a return to normalcy – a world where America recognises its commitments to the region and doubles down on engagement. Much of Mr. Biden’s campaigning this year saw him rejecting America Firstand embracing multilateralism and the liberal international order.  As a long-serving member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, it is hoped that Mr. Biden would make strides towards reviving the foreign service. A senior adviser to the Biden campaign has also promised that he will “show up and engage ASEAN on critical issues”. While these things don’t necessarily equate to good diplomacy, they are prerequisites for it. There is growing optimism in South-East Asia that a Biden Presidency might lead to better relations with the embattled superpower

Less confrontation, more competition 

There is also hope that Mr. Biden could bring a more nuanced and coherent approach in his dealings with China. Make no mistake, there is broad and bi-partisan support for the containment of China within American politics. Both sides think that China poses a real threat to America’s hegemonic status and agree that they need to be harsher. However, what makes the Trump administration unique is its incoherence and its propensity for confrontational rhetoric with China. 

One moment the president praises China for its Coronavirus response, then he warns that the country will ‘pay a big price’ for it. He urges congress to lift the ban on Chinese telecommunications equipment manufacturer ZTE, then pressures allies to not choose Huawei’s 5G network equipment. The overall lack in coherence only leads to suspicion and confusion amongst allies – who are then more likely to distance themselves from the Americans. The trade war that Mr. Trump has started has also had negative consequences on countries like Singapore. Firms exporting to China, as well as those with factories there and exporting to the U.S. have seen their revenues decline.

Uncertainties

Under a Biden administration, the hope is that there will be more strategic competition instead of barbed rhetoric and confrontation. The president-elect has signalled his intention to do this by engaging in trade diplomacy. “We make up 25% of the world’s trading capacity, of the economy of the world. We need to be aligned with the other democracies – another 25% or more – so that we can set the rules of the road,” he said, days after the RCEP was signed. The alternative, was to have “China and others dictate outcomes because they are the only game in town”. This might manifest in the form of a resurrected T.P.P. or more trade deals with Asia. Regardless, Singapore might benefit from these moves. As a trading nation, open access to markets is essential for the city-state’s economic performance, and free trade agreements increases market access. Increased American influence through trade would also seek to rebalance relations in South-East Asia.  

With all that being said, there are still plenty of things that are unknown. The president-elect is facing a constituency of voters who are more anti-China than ever. A more nuanced foreign policy approach might not be possible due to these political realities. It would also be hard to retract a lot of the Trump administration’s tariffs and measures without being labelled ‘weak on China’ by the other side. In other words, his hands might already be tied. 

Regardless of the unknowns, most indications point to the fact that the Biden years might be a smoother ride than the last four years. 

 He is, after all, a familiar face. 

In a world that is bubbling with clickbait, sensationalism and oversimplifications, Kopi aims to bring long-form journalism back to South-East Asia.

Through deeply analysed articles, we uncover and explain the complex and multifaceted issues facing our societies. Through engaging narratives, we tell stories that are bold and unique.

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