The unflattering phrase, “Little Red Dot”, has repeatedly being used to describe Singapore for its small geographical size. Despite its land constraints, Singapore has zealously guarded its sovereignty with unwavering determination to “punch above its weight”.
Perhaps this explains the furore unleashed when the Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Professor Kishore Mahbubani, published an article “Qatar: Big lessons from a small country” in The Straits Times in August 2017. In his article, Prof Mahbubani analysed the causes of the diplomatic crisis and sanctions faced by the outspoken State of Qatar.
Given the similarity between the small countries of Qatar and Singapore, Singapore could potentially be plunged into a similar diplomatic crisis if we do not play our cards right. A sanction on Singapore would be crippling given our absolute reliance on imports. Prof Mahbubani was of the view that Singapore should be more prudent in its public statements, especially when commenting on matters involving powerful countries.
Rebuttal was swift, and Prof Mahbubani’s viewpoint was publicly challenged by senior government officials as unacceptable. His critics articulated the need for Singapore to consistently stand up against powerful countries should its core interests be challenged. This is critical for Singapore to be taken seriously in the international arena, to impede other countries from walking over us.
Are Small Countries Weak?
It has never been easy for small countries to stand up against larger countries. In ancient times, the strength of a country was usually dependent on its might, which was generally a derivative of its land or population size.
Countries with the mightiest armies held sway over their weaker neighbours. Weaker states were vanquished and annexed as spoils of wars.
However, times have changed. Gone are the days where the influence of a country was limited by its geographical size or population. The early 20th century witnessed the defeat of larger countries like Russia and China to Japan, a much smaller country. The newly established State of Israel continues to stand firm against its much larger regional rivals.
The strength of a country could be measured by its influence. In the case of Qatar, its influence is based on its immense wealth and oil reserves. As one of the richest countries in the world, Qatar influences international events by sponsoring different political groups that may even include suspected terrorist groups.
Although Singapore is not endowed with natural oil and gas, its strategic location near the Strait of Malacca means that many of the world’s vital shipping lanes pass through its port. Like Qatar, it is also one of the richest countries in the world with many overseas investments through its sovereign funds.
In other words, there is no need for smaller countries to condescend larger countries, as long as they play the game right by maximising the leverage they have. There is less need for small countries to fear an outright invasion, as such aggression is strongly condemned by the world community that values peace and stability.
Between a Rock and a Hard Place
Prof Mahbubani’s article has struck a raw nerve by commenting that “small states must behave like small states” and it is not wise for a weaker country to challenge a greater power unless its fundamentals are at risk. This comment was made in reference to the nose-diving diplomatic relationship between Singapore and China, after Singapore upheld the arbitral tribunal’s ruling on the South China Sea, to the chagrin of China.
Singapore is stuck between a rock and a hard place. As one of China’s biggest foreign investors, it is in Singapore’s commercial interest to maintain cordial relationships with China. However, freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is now at stake. If China continues to assert its influence, it may eventually claim the entire South China Sea within its self-declared “Nine-Dash Lines” as Chinese waters. By doing so, China will be able to limit maritime navigation within the South China Sea to the detriment of other countries.
This has serious ramifications for international trade, as it is estimated that at least US$5 trillion (S$6.77 trillion) worth of trade flows through the South China Sea. If this strategic waterway is closed to Singapore, the effect on our economy would be devastating. Singapore has among the highest trade-to-GDP ratios in the world; our prosperity would vaporise without free trade. Hence, Singapore cannot afford to keep quiet as China’s actions directly threaten its survival.
Singapore’s hands are tied. It simply has too much to lose in the face of rising Chinese assertiveness. This was the reason why Singapore upheld the ruling and frustrated China, while other ASEAN and claimant nations like the Philippines have chosen not to antagonise China on this issue despite the ruling in their favour.
Fortunately, Singapore is not facing China alone. Other than the ASEAN nations, the United States and Japan are increasingly vocal against Chinese ambitions. The United States has backed its words with actions by patrolling its navy in the South China Sea. Sometimes, it takes a world power to take on another.
Principles at Stake
Other than the freedom of navigation, also at stake is the principle of a ruled-based world order and respect for international organisations and treaties.
Such an international order is essential to Singapore’s survival. If international rules are not abided, chaos would set in and the law of the jungle would apply. In the absence of rules, the interests of the weak would be at mercy of the strong.
China has repeatedly demonstrated its disdain for international order by only abiding by rules at its convenience. In the case of the South China Sea dispute, China has chosen to ignore the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which ruled in favour of the Philippines. This is despite the fact that China ratified the UNCLOS in the 1980s.
As a matter of principle, Singapore cannot subscribe to reticence. We have to publicly make our stand clear. If the issue is left unchallenged, China would only be emboldened by the inaction of the stakeholders, and would simply assume that no country dares to stand up to its bold moves. China’s singular actions will do no good, as this prolonged dispute has the potential to escalate into an armed conflict if left unchecked.
History has attested that appeasement does not work. To defend the country’s core principles, Singapore will inevitably have to cross swords with other countries regardless of the parity in strength. Singapore must demonstrate to the world its determination to defend its core interests and that some lines cannot be crossed, lest we run the risk of not being taken seriously by the international community.
Weathering the Turbulence
This is not the first time that Singapore has been embroiled in a conflict with another country. From neighbours to superpowers, Singapore has demonstrated its willingness to stand up for its interests whenever the need arises. Taking a definite stand on matters should be viewed as a part and parcel of international relations rather than a disruption in relationships.
The South China Sea dispute is trickier than past conflicts. The stakes are high and each country has its own agenda. The issue is compounded by the predisposition of China to ignore international ruling.
It would take mutual concessions and discussions among the different parties before the dispute can be resolved. But judging from the current situation, it is unlikely that any party will concede any grounds in their negotiation.
As of now, it remains to be seen if Singapore, China, and other countries can weather this diplomatic turbulence unscathed.