Printer Friendly

The rise of China and India: geo-political narratives from the Singapore perspective.

Theoretical frameworks have often defined the debates in the field of international relations (IR). Two major IR theories are realism and idealism. Realism is associated with the exercise of power by states and places overwhelming premium on the concept of power which is a measure of the influence of a state. Idealism emphasises the workings of international laws and regimes, morality as well as international institutions as factors of constraint on the exercise of raw power.

Singapore does not fit into these two major frameworks perfectly. If the influence of a state is proportional to power, then Singapore has far more influence than its size permits. This is reflected by many prominent examples, among which is the role of Singapore diplomacy in chairing the United Nations (UN) Committee on the Law of the Sea by one of the persons studied in this article.

Singapore also does not fit into idealism, given its well-known status for realist decisions, working with China against the Vietnamese during the Cold War in the 1970s after establishing a fierce anti-Communist reputation, using an Indian business initiative--the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII)'s Partnership Summit in 2007--to push for India-Pakistani rapprochement over Kashmir placing fairness and equity over the overwhelmingly pro-business agenda, and warning the Western media against excessively stigmatising China over the Olympic-relay pro-Tibet protests in full view of the Western media at a conference organised by the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Against this paradoxical backdrop, what then are the discourses that dominate Singaporean diplomacy and management of IR, and of particular interest in this article, how does Singapore deal with the emergence of China and India? Narratives emanating from Singapore on the rise of China and India tend to emphasise the economic emergence of the two giant economies. Like many other Asia-Pacific countries and, indeed the world, business and commercial analyses of Chinese and Indian economic trends have spawned a massive industry of consulting, news/information, publishing and speaking circuits. But what about geopolitical narratives in IR, do they also reflect the same levels of optimism, pragmatism, problems and criticisms that economic analyses face? This article looks at the selected thoughts and individual perceptions of three thinkers who have left their diplomatic/academic footprints on the subject.

Inherent and implicit in any discussion on perspectives, the locality of the analyst or thinker itself becomes a subject of discussion. Singapore-centric perspectives on this subject are not restricted by nationality or citizenship, and the three individuals have been chosen based on their Singapore-centric perspectives with their backgrounds straddling diplomacy and academia. Three popular discourses can be referenced when it comes to strategic thinking about the rise of China and India--those of Michael Leifer, Kishore Mabhubani and Tommy Koh. This selection of thinkers does not pretend to be comprehensive or comprehensively representative. Rather, they are a selection based on contributions circulated within the academic and diplomatic circles and by the popular media, generating and contributing to mainstream interest and narratives in Singapore.

Outside popular consumption of the discourses, Koh and Mabhubani continue to be influential with the diplomatic community in Singapore. On 10 March 2008, at the inaugural S. Rajaratnam Lecture of Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) Diplomatic Academy, delivered by President S.R. Nathan of the Republic of Singapore, Koh and Mabhubani were singled out for special mention as two, among a small group of pioneering diplomats, who now serve as associated members of the academy passing on their knowledge to junior officers.

One observation that can be made is that there seem to be very few Singapore-centric narratives that are extremely pessimistically critical of the rise of China and India that are comparable to the likes of Gordon Chang's The Coming Collapse of China in the US, or right wing Taiwanese-Japanese Ko Bunyu's highly-racialised An Introduction to China. One would also be hard-pressed to find narratives that consider China or India a direct and unequivocal threat to Singapore.

Many factors may account for this. The thoughts of the three individuals may offer some possible explanations for this. Given its internationalist (leading proponent of free economic exchanges) and cosmopolitan background, Singapore has always had a pragmatic policy that has worked with all major world powers since independence. In fact, far from being threatening, Mabhubani, for example, highlights the positive aspects of China's and India's rise to power, citing "China's modernisation has already reduced the number of Chinese living in absolute poverty from six hundred million to two hundred million" and "India's growth is also making an equally significant impact". (1)

In a celebratory mood, Mabhubani points out that fundamental to the UN's "actually meet[ing]one of its Millennium Development Goals of reducing global poverty by half by 2015 will be the success of China and India in reducing poverty significantly". (2) This leads to his argument that many Western observers and analysts, including those radically negative ones, fail to "see beyond the lack of a democratic political system" and "miss the massive democratisation of the human spirit that is taking place in China" as "hundreds of millions of Chinese who thought they were destined for endless poverty now believe that they can improve their lives through their own efforts". (3)

In terms of internal dynamics, most analyses of Singapore's foreign policy depend on concepts that shore up its natural vulnerabilities such as small state size, the need for survival and realpolitik pragmatism. Thus all regional and superpowers are not immediately treated as a threat but as a component of Singapore's quest to enhance global and regional interdependence. The emergence of China and India creates a regional superstructure from which Singapore can frame its response and hedge them against more established powers.

Within the region of Southeast Asia, Singapore has an internalised equilibrium in its relations with China and India. Singapore is not located on the peripheries of China (unlike the so-called Greater Chinese societies of Taiwan or Hong Kong, or the sinified outskirts of Vietnam) or India (unlike many Indo-Chinese states). It is located in the centre of maritime Southeast Asia where ethnic Chinese who form the majority of Singaporeans (three quarters) are a regional minority treated with caution by neighbouring dominant ethnicities. Thus, Singaporeans have treaded carefully, walking a fine line between ethnic identification with their ancestral past and sensitivities towards harmonious relations with indigenous ethnic groups in the region. In other words, mainstream Singapore, its leaders, media and society have been careful in being balanced and measured in their worldviews and conceptualisations of the positions of China, India and Southeast Asia in their lives.

One of Singapore's foreign policy pillars is its commitment to good relations with its neighbours and the resulting sensitivity to its immediate neighbours' own bilateral relations with China. (4) Regionally, Singapore is sensitive to its neighbours' suspicions of Singapore's Chinese-majority's affiliation with China.

Thus, Singapore made it a point to establish formal official diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China (3 October 1990) only after Indonesia had done so (8 August 1990). Singapore's sense of its own vulnerabilities imposed a form of self-restraint in its relations with China.

Michael Leifer (1933-2001)

The first discourse on Singapore-centric views of the rise of China and India studied here is the English school of balance of power school led by the highly-respected Michael Leifer, an academic cum practitioner in Southeast Asian politics and international relations. He lectured at Adelaide and Hull Universities, was a Pro-Director at the London School of Economics and served as Director of the Asia Research Centre there. He wrote regularly for the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. He ventured outside academia, personally involved in the creation of the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific (CSCAP), and his opinions were often sought after by policy-makers. He published more than 20 single-authored books and edited innumerable scholarly articles covering not only the field of Southeast Asian IR but also Southeast Asian domestic policies. (5)

Leifer held Singapore as a model of a small state utilising balance of power to overcome its geopolitical vulnerability. Singapore continues to try to find and employ "a variety of ways of compensating for and reshaping to advantage a regional distribution of power which registers the island-state's vulnerability" and this includes engaging in "multilateral forms of cooperative security arrangements" that do not include a military dimension. (6)

Leifer provided an analogy utilised by a former Foreign Minister of Singapore to describe Singapore's preference for inclusive participation of stakeholders: "When there is a multiplicity of suns the gravitational pull of each is not only weakened but also by a judicious use of pulls and counter-pulls of gravitational forces, the minor planets have a great freedom of navigation." (7) There is a delicate balance of external interests in which Singapore understood its vulnerabilities and the importance of balancing regional powers and neighbours.

In the immediate post Cold War context, Leifer argued that the United States had lost the will to maintain the regional balance of power, Russia had weakened militarily and was spent, and Japan had become a sleeping giant, leaving the rise of China as an area of concern for ASEAN as reflected to Leifer by its policy-makers. (8) In fact, his writings sometimes indicated that it was not so much China's aggressive postures but rather the failure of countervailing big powers to manage China's rise to power: " ... the region's [Southeast Asia's] states have less than full confidence in the ability of the US to sustain a countervailing role to prevent territorial change by force". (9)

The one exception to this is probably the South China Sea dispute issue. Leifer's assessment of Singapore's position on this issue was that it is not so much China's aggression that caused this but the belief that "China would not have had the temerity to seize Mischief Reef in the Spratly islands had the USA not withdrawn previously from its military bases in the Philippines". (10) Nevertheless, in May 1995, the Singapore leadership was vocal on the issue of freedom of navigation after China seized the Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands. (11) But even Leifer would only classify this as a "potential" conflict instead of a major one, and he noted dryly that Singapore is "not a claimant state". (12) In Leifer's view, there was also a concurrent failure among ASEAN members to establish a common position against an external claimant like China through internal dialogue, discussion and unity. (13)

In the same area, however, Tommy Koh noted a significant de-escalation of potential conflict when China acceded to the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea, "in its attempt to reassure the ASEAN countries that it would not resort to the threat of the use of force to resolve the conflict territorial claims in the South China Sea, particularly in the Spratly Islands". (14)

Aside from the regional context, according to Leifer, Singapore practised self-constraint in its relationship with China. For example, "Singapore did not go out of its way to alienate Beijing by entering into diplomatic relations with Taiwan"; it "began with and has held continuously to a one-China policy" and Beijing has indicated its "approval". (15) All these indicated adaptability, compensation and pragmatism in Singapore's early ties with China. In the case of Taiwan, Leifer argued that without expressing sympathy for any political factions in Taiwan, Singapore's leaders have spoken out on Beijing rhetoric with respect to the use of force but such intervention had been exceptional rather than the norm and usually done without directly criticising China's conduct. (16) The principle of intervention is neither to interfere in China's domestic affairs nor to support Taiwan's political aspirations but to make "the obvious points that Chinese policy in Southeast Asia cannot be separated from its conduct in Northeast Asia ... " (17)

Singapore's awareness of its own vulnerabilities also spilled over to its dealings with China. Leifer argued that "China has always loomed large in the calculations of Singapore's government because of the island's demographic profile and attendant suspicions among close neighbours" as "some three quarters of the population had comprised ethnic-Chinese of migrant origin long before independence". (18) In many ways, Singapore's reaction to the rise of China also takes regional and domestic dynamics into account.

At an Asia Society conference in Tokyo, the Singaporean leadership also noted that "Beijing will want a peaceful international environment and constructive relations with its neighbours ... " and "as China emerges as a great power, Asia-Pacific countries have the common interest to keep China peacefully engaged with other countries in the region ... that will give China a deep and enduring interest in maintaining international order". (19) In Leifer's view, this was engagement in the ASEAN way.

Leifer argued that the Singapore school of balance of power is not the same as the creation of 19th-century European military alliances. Instead, it relies on the utilisation of multilateral institutions to underpin its diplomacy. (20) Its sponsorship of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) engages all players in the Asia Pacific, (21) including the emerging powers of China and India. No one is left out.

Leifer's balance-of-power thus centred around emerging new players in the region like China. Despite this, he did not clearly conceptualise China as an unequivocal and exceptional threat but was reacting to his instincts of the normative need to achieve equilibrium in the regional order and prescribing it for a small vulnerable state like Singapore, even as China reshaped the regional environment. In analysing China's rise in the early 1990s, Singapore's leadership detected China's increasing capability "to try to reshape any international environment that it regards as threatening its basic interests". (22)

Thus, Singapore's proactive stance in engaging all stakeholders in the region is important because balance of power in the region is "reflected in a competitive pattern of regional alignments" and the avoidance of military conflicts or confrontations is dependent on the prudence of major powers that "constrains the use of military means traditionally associated with the practice of the balance of power as a policy of states". (23) Singapore's role is very much needed for ASEAN activism, especially since Leifer remained suspicious of the ability of the regional organisation to go beyond aspirations and on to actual actions and decisions in coping with regional changes.

In Cold War-era Leifer writings, regional order, including an ASEAN-led one, was a "high-sounding aspiration which is difficult to define with any precision" and referred to "the existence of a stable structure of regional inter-governmental relationships informed by common assumptions about the bases of inter-state conduct". (24) In other words, Leifer's regional order referred to security obtained from states' adherence to a formal or informal set of rules. Using this definition, Leifer had great suspicions about ASEAN's ability to cope with the rise of China in the 1980s although this view was mitigated somewhat in his later writings. Cold War-era Leifer writings indicated that ASEAN was "not a defence community" but a "diplomatic community, if of a limited kind" and that it was beset by some kind of internal disunity arising from a number of conflicts of interests by its constituent governments. (25)

Consequently, Leifer argued that "if a regional order is difficult to define with any precision, it is even more difficult to promote because, like beauty, that ideal condition tends to reside in the eye of the beholder" and perceptions and perspectives of strategic interests and threat tend to obstruct the formation of a regional order Thus "any quest for regional order becomes an even more elusive undertaking". (26) In the English school of balance of power, each state must be conscious of the common interest and that a regional order may not privilege equality. A stable order has to precede multilateralism and an operating norm among states in the region (whether institutionalised or non-institutionalised) has to exist such that each constituent adheres to some common code of conduct and expectations.

Even Leifer admitted, however, that differences in strategic perspectives and perceptions did not prevent the ASEAN states from pursuing the goal of a regional order. (27) Ultimately, even the English balance of power has to accommodate this through being principally focused on order, and based on the belief that states are constantly looking for some measures of regularity in their international activities by creating a stable mechanism of habits and practices that ensure survival. (28)

Leifer had doubts about multilateral institutions (on guard against "institutionalist optimism" (29)), in the post-Cold War context, though somewhat grudgingly accepted in later writings, that the balance of power within the Southeast Asian regional order was increasingly enhanced by multilateral institutions. Singapore's active role in engagement cannot be ignored. Singapore saw great potential and utility in political engagement with China, especially if it could be located within ASEAN regional institutions and initiatives after the common stance against the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. Leifer labelled this as the period when Singapore "found common tactical cause with China over the regional balance of power". (30)

In constructing the regional order, Singapore has continually supported ASEAN initiatives to engage China and reshape trajectories in regional relations. For example, ASEAN and China have forged a Strategic Partnership for Peace and Prosperity with a Framework Agreement for ASEAN-China Closer Economic Relations for productive and open exchanges on a regular basis with the involvement of experts from academia, business and the policy community--from both sides as well as from the wider region. (31) Moving beyond Leifer's initial suspicions, ASEAN and China have participated actively in various regional cooperation arrangements such as the ASEAN Plus Three, East Asian Summit, and Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), as well as in the international arena--the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation and other such bodies with an increased role in regional and global affairs. (32)

Leifer, writing at the turn of the century in 2000, also noted that Singapore's PM Goh himself encouraged interest in India in the mid-1990s, resulting in his initiative at the ASEAN summit in Bangkok in December 1995 to make India a dialogue partner of the Association. (33) This engagement with India is seen as an offshoot of Singapore "multilateralist logic", (34) not just externally with non-ASEAN powers but also internally with ASEAN powers as this Indian initiative came with strong support from Indonesia's Suharto regime.

Kishore Mabhubani (1948--)

The second individual case study in this paper is the civilisational strain of thought by Kishore Mabhubani whose landmark book, Can Asians Think?, continues to receive a tremendous amount of attention in the West. Mabhubani spent 33 years in the Singapore Foreign Service from 1971 to 2004, was the Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Ministry from 1993 to 1998 and President of the UN Security Council in January 2001 and May 2002. For his service, he was awarded the Public Administration Medal (Gold) in 1998 and Foreign Policy Association Medal in New York in June 2004. (35)

With regards to the rise of China and India and for that matter the rise of Asia, Mabhubani's East-West tract looked at the inability of the West to develop a long-term narrative for managing relations with a rising East, incorporating elements of world history and civilisation as well as practical experience gathered from his appointments in the Singapore civil service, academe and the diplomatic service. In his words, " ... failure to develop a viable strategy to deal with Islam or China reveals a fatal .aw in the West: an inability to come to terms with the shifts in the relative weights of civilisations ... " (36)

In his view, this element of misperception has led to dissonance between the West and China because the West "obsess[es] over the menace of China" (37) whereas the Chinese believe that the emphasis should be on becoming a developed nation instead of wasting efforts in military conflicts, taking into account the many times China had tried to modernise but fail. This mutual misperception highlighted by Mabhubani coincides with Prof. Tommy Koh's theme of East-West misunderstanding, though Koh's explanation differs by attributing East-West dissonance to the rise of East Asia catching the West unaware because it has been so "rapid and so unexpected". (38) For example, Koh had the impression that European participants at a colloquium in 1998 which the Asia-Europe Foundation co-organised with the German newspaper Die Zeit on "Human Rights and Human Responsibilities", were not "sympathetic" to the point of view that "no government in human history has done so much for so many people in such a short time as the present Government of China". (39)

Aside from East-West perspectives, Mabhubani's main observation about the rise of China is the tendency towards retaining the status quo in the regional order:

We see the emergence of a new great power (China) but with no immediate hint of conflict. The region today is not preparing for war. It is preparing for prosperity--that is the mood and tone of the region. (40)

Because of this, Mabhubani asserts that:

... a new consensus emerged in the region: "Let sleeping dogs lie" and "that is why we have not had any major geopolitical crisis in East Asia since March 1996, despite phenomenal historical change in our region. (41)

One example that Mabhubani gives to demonstrate this is China's maintenance of status quo with respect to its nuclear arsenal. It is unwilling to move more than half of its 400 nuclear warheads out of a secure location, is not keeping operational warheads at hair-trigger alert and is less than enthusiastic about modernising the nuclear arsenal. These have all resulted in the non-development of China's nuclear stockpile for more than 20 years. (42) In this sense, Mabhubani is less worried about China's geostrategic threat than the outcome of the changing pecking order in East Asia. Essentially, the one limitation that Mabhubani detects in the future of East Asia is not the rise of China or India itself, but the shape and form of the resulting new pecking order. Foremost in his thoughts are Sino-Japanese relations:

But Asians also accept hierarchy. When this is not violated, peace can reign. The fascination of Sino-Japanese relations is in deciding who should view whom as number one. Economically, Japan is far ahead, but in political and military terms China carries more weight. Japan is more stable than China in the short term, and China needs Japanese economic aid and investment. But Japan needs China's market, as well as social stability in China. While Japan's culture is derived from China, Japan carries more weight in the international hierarchy. So who determines who is number one? (43)

Like Mabhubani, Koh is worried about a regional power competition. He hopes for reconciliation between East Asia's two largest powers. In his view, historical memories are the main culprit making the picture in Northeast Asia "less satisfactory", "historic reconciliation of the kind that occurred between England, France and Germany has not taken place between China and Japan or between Japan and Korea" and "the ghosts of the past continue to haunt the triangular relationship between China, Japan and Korea". (44) Koh suggests a long-term solution for this situation--to have "visionary leaders" who can "simultaneously bury the past and inspire the peoples of East Asia with the vision of a New Asia". (45)

All three are in agreement when it comes to big power politics. Mabhubani's view on the interactions and interdependence of great powers coincides with Prof. Tommy Koh's view regarding one of the pillars of Singapore's foreign policy, namely, "[do] not seek to change the world as it is and not as we would like it to be". (46) In other words, Koh argues that big power politics will have their own dynamics. Agreeing with this view, Leifer extends this argument to the whole of ASEAN in that ASEAN was established as an enterprise "in the full knowledge that certain underlying facts of political life could not be changed at will, including the sense of vulnerability of some member states". (47) Leifer added: "Singapore is hardly in a position to manage the relationship between China and South-East Asia. It is obliged to use whatever influence it can muster in the cause of a policy of engagement deemed to serve the island-state's interests better than any other policy option." (48) This was part of his fundamental belief that developments at the global and regional level impact those at the sub-regional level or what he called "balance of extra-regional influences." (49)

Tommy Koh (1937--)

If big power politics cannot be changed either by Singapore or ASEAN, then a pragmatic strategy is needed cope with them. Pragmatism is a running theme in Prof. Tommy Koh's thoughts. Koh is currently Ambassador-At-Large of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Chairman of the Institute of Policy Studies and served as Singapore's Permanent Representative to the UN (New York) from 1968 to 1971 and from 1974 to 1984 before becoming Ambassador to the US from 1984 to 1990. Professor Koh was also the President of the Third UN Conference on the Law of the Sea from 1981 to 1982 and Dean of the Faculty of Law at the National University of Singapore from 1971 to 1974. (50)

Like Mabhubani, Koh also comes from a mixed academic-practitioner background. However, he is a self-declared pragmatic idealist who practises qualified idealism and adheres to an optimistic view of human nature and the belief in the possibility of cooperation qualified by the role of international and regional regimes in curbing the use of force and restraining excessive competition. At the same time, he rejects the notion that national interest is the only basis for state decision-making and that the ends justify the means of using deception to achieve one's goals. In Koh's view, there should be a moral component to diplomacy and international legality. National interests alone cannot determine good diplomacy.

In the mid-1990s, Koh made the argument that Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC)'s inclusion of China was beneficial to "assist China in integrating itself into the world economy" so that large economies like Japan and "the United States and East Asia can together build an Asia-Pacific region which is prosperous and stable". (51) Agreeing with this view, Leifer argued that there has also been a conscious preference among Singapore's policy-makers for a politically stable China to avoid the "prospect of a flow of refugees and regional turmoil". (52) In other words, nobody in the region wants China to become a failed state or economy and there is a determined effort to co-prosper with China. In scenario-planning, Koh noted that China's smaller neighbours hoped that China would continue to "pursue a policy of good neighbourliness and not become a region bully". (53) There was a sense that big countries should display some sense of morality and self-restraint and that unmitigated self-interests should be tempered with regional peace and order.

As a member of the ASEAN-China Eminent Persons Group (EPG) from Singapore, Koh was a contributor to a report that assessed China-ASEAN relations from 1990 to 2005 and proposed a new vision and roadmap for 2005 to 2020. This report reflected the optimism, role of cooperation and coded messages of regional peace envisioned by Koh as a pragmatic idealist. The report made it clear that while ASEAN and China will deepen and strengthen their strategic relationship, they will adopt "an open and inclusive approach" in promoting regional peace and security with other dialogue partners, including the US, Japan, India and the European Union (EU). (54) Conversely, these powers must also not regard East Asia as a threat but an opportunity so that the "American political and security commitment to the region will endure". (55)

Having an open and inclusive approach proved to be useful in restraining excessive competition and self-seeking conduct within the region. This is beneficial for a small state like Singapore. It also reflected the principles of morality in terms of justice (restraining aggression), equality (all-encompassing regional order including small states) and cooperation (deepening strategic relationships and confidence-building measures). All these qualities gravitate towards moderation and the assumption that states are not absolutist--neither so moral that there is no need of a regional order, nor so aggressive that they are constantly at war. An open and inclusive regional order will promote mutual accommodation and benefits.

Koh also applied his open and inclusive approach to the rise of India. In his view, with the rise of India and the growing connectivity between India, Australia and New Zealand, and Northeast and Southeast Asia, it was logical for ASEAN to launch the East Asia Summit (EAS) which brings together ASEAN+3+3 (Australia, New Zealand and India). Apart from its economic logic, the EAS forum has great strategic significance because Asia's peace will depend on the ability of China, Japan and India to live at peace with one another. (56) In turn, Koh also recommended that these major Asian powers be balanced with US might and that the US should remain engaged with the region as a unit:
 ASEAN is now being courted by all the major powers in the
 region--China, Japan, South Korea, and India. Given that other
 countries are seeking influence in ASEAN, it would be in the US
 interest, as well as in the interest of ASEAN, for the US to engage
 with ASEAN as a collective unit in order to continue to
 constructively influence the region. (57)

An open and inclusive approach to regionalism is derived from a pragmatic foreign policy based on the "one lodestar--the security and prosperity of Singapore". (58) According to Singapore's geo-strategic thinking, Singapore cannot rely solely on a regional framework of normative behaviour to survive. It must go beyond the immediate region to engage non-East Asian powers for extra security and guarantees. In other words, consensus-building based on the inclusion of all stakeholders (not necessarily only East Asian powers) forms the foundation of Koh's approach to multilateralism.


In evaluating the thoughts of the three thinkers, it may be possible to analytically frame them within the rubric of other regional states' well-known criticisms of Singapore's foreign policy. Three such examples are examined here. Some of these criticisms are offshoots or by-products of the principles enunciated by Leifer, Mabhubani and Koh.

(a) The first example is the accusation by countries in the region that Singapore is "over-legalistic" and "fixated with facts". (59) From the aforementioned materials on the cold-hard Leiferesque realist approach to Koh's institution-building emphasis, one can detect the rational model at work here in conceptualising Singapore's relations with other states.

By maximising benefits while lowering costs, Singapore's diplomacy may give others the impression that it is overly rule-bound and institutionally conforming. It is important to stress that this is a perception and impression on receptors of Singapore's foreign policy and may not be a reflection of intentions. Sometimes, at the field level, given the applied faithfulness to organisational processes and standard operating procedures, the impression of being "over-legalistic" and "fixated with facts" may be unavoidable.

While such misperceptions may be forwarded by some countries, Singapore on the whole, however, enjoys a good reputation for being fair and equitable. This is precisely due to Singapore's diplomats (including Koh and Mabhubani) who have been generally known in the diplomatic circle for their strategic vision, their ability to understand and analyse the trends and dynamics in the region and their ability to propose constructive initiatives. Indeed, they have been concomitantly rewarded with the Chairmanship of the UN Convention for the Law of the Sea, a role in the UN Security Council and other contributions. Legalism and facts are strong points in Singapore's foreign policy. The adherence to rules and norms reflect the consistency of the application of Singapore's foreign policy.

(b) The second critique of Singapore's foreign policy centres on excessive pragmatism. Pragmatism in its China policy is symbolised by the way Singapore dealt with China and Taiwan. In 1967, in order to overcome Singapore's lack of training space and dependence on the Israelis for assistance in the training of its military, Singapore started discussions with the Taiwanese for use of their training areas. However, when Taiwan set up its trade office in Singapore two years later, Singapore insisted that this exchange of trade missions did not entail formal diplomatic recognition of each other.

Critics may seize on this example as being calculative through the maximisation of self-interest and benefit while minimising costs according to the bound rationality model. However, very often, Singapore is working within the restraints of being a small player. Leifer, Koh and Mabhubani all acknowledged this. Pragmatism is as much geopolitically determined by its natural attributes as it is a conscious by-product of Singapore's survival instinct. This was strongly put across by Leifer's doubts about multilateralism, Koh's cautious caveat of strategic and cautious pragmatism and Mabhubani's tract on the inability to change the directions of Chinese accumulation of power and economic development. But is the criticism valid?

Seen empirically, Singapore has adhered strictly to its one-China policy by never establishing formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, even though relations have continued to be friendly and mutually beneficial. In this sense, Singapore's pragmatism has paid off, making it one of the few countries in the world with the unique position of having good relations with both China and Taiwan, even hosting their unification talks.

In many ways, Mabhubani believes that Singapore's pragmatism has paid off because Singapore understands the pecking order in the region and its position in it. It does not pretend to challenge China's interest. But one cannot charge it with being overly pragmatic because, from time to time, Singapore is prepared to stand up to China (or for that matter other great powers) if it needs to (e.g. vocalising its views on the South China Sea dispute), but doing it cautiously, exceptionally and often strategically with gentle persuasion.

(c) A third criticism of Singapore's foreign policy is related to the first two--lack of cultural understanding, arising from the legalistic approach and pragmatic instinct for survival. While legality and facts are important to Singapore, Mabhubani lauds Singapore's sensitivity to culture, identity and civilisational features. Unlike Koh and Leifer who are stronger functionalists, Mabhubani also looks at historical precedents and regional identity. Rationality in Singapore's neofunctionalist institutionalism does have its limits with a softer edge in culture, history and civilisation.

Mabhubani's constructivist preoccupation with pecking order may allude to the fact that Singapore may be skilful in recognising Asian norms, cultural nuance and identity. Pragmatism works if it is the normative behaviour in the region, perhaps symbolised by the so-called intra-regional normative ASEAN Way. If Singapore does not recognise these cultural norms, would it have deferred diplomatic recognition of China only after Indonesia had done so based on its own internal ethnic structure and sensitivity to regional states? Mabhubani makes clear that Singapore is privy to these regional cultural norms precisely because it has a multiracial makeup reflecting the major civilisations, cultures and religions in the region.


The eclectic nature of these three discourses represents the multiplicity of identities in the cosmopolitan society of Singapore and different strategic conceptions. The fluidity of regional dynamics has also modified previous perceptions. For example, Leifer considered India to be "diplomatically distant" and secondary in importance. (60) Such perspectives have depended on inheritors of the Leifer school of thought to update it to the contemporary context.

Embarking on the globalisation process about ten years later than China, India has been behind China in terms of economic growth and development, i.e., in the quantitative category. However, India's democratisation, gradual liberalisation policy, attempts to integrate with the global system particularly in the areas of subcontracting, IT and call centres, as well as strategic partnerships with other democracies like India, Japan and Australia, have gained credit.

Singapore, under the patronage of former PM Goh Chok Tong, has identified India's potential in terms of its demographic advantages, affordable labour power, relatively benign image and its willingness to learn from East Asia through its "Look East Policy".

Even Leifer had to acknowledge Singapore's attention in promoting India as a dialogue partner of ASEAN and supporting India's membership in the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). These happened even before India had greatly expanded its reach to encompass Southeast Asia and increased security cooperation with the US, Japan and other global players following 9-11 under the rubric of the War on Terror.

On the eve of his visit to Singapore on 20 November 2008, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh proclaimed India's "Look East" policy as "blossoming and showing results on the ground", emphasising multilateralism that will expand people-to-people contacts, actively implement the ASEAN-India Partnership for Peace, Progress and Shared Prosperity, participating in the East Asia Summit for discussion on energy/national disasters and regional and international issues as well as future directions for cooperation. (61)

In fact, India has moved into regional prominence. As a first step, India acceded to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation (TAC) in 2003. (62) Singapore has been quick to balance China engagement with India outreach through initiatives at the ASEAN summit held in Bangkok in December 1995 to make India a dialogue partner of the Association, drawing immediate support from ASEAN countries like Indonesia. India and ASEAN are also forging a similar prominent role in global and regional politics. Singapore's self-reliance in taking the initiative in balancing all regional powers is the second pillar of its foreign policy that places a premium on self-help. (63)

At the 4th India-ASEAN Summit in Kuala Lumpur, both sides discussed the global issue of terrorism and pledged to intensify cooperation to fight the menace. This was exemplified by Malaysian Prime Minister Badawi's message: "Terrorism is still a major threat to our collective security in this region. We are saddened with the loss of lives as a result of the recent bombings in India." (64) He also said it is timely to proceed with implementing some form of concrete cooperation based on the ASEAN-India Declaration on Cooperation to Combat International Terrorism which was adopted in Bali. (65)

In terms of worldview, both ASEAN and China have agreed to practise the "policy of open regionalism" characterised by the ASEAN-China strategic partnership and to emphasise intensified engagement of civil society in regional community building, catalysed by greater people-to-people interaction and cooperation with their voices brought to the attention of governments. (66) In this aspect, a second track ASEAN-China collaboration is encouraged and facilitated by governments and invited to develop ideas and make concrete suggestions to substantiate the strategic partnership. (67) ASEAN and India also aligned their security worldviews during the Vientiane Summit in 2004 and signed the ASEAN-India Partnership for Peace, Progress and Shared Prosperity which endorsed a Plan of Action to implement it. (68)

There are also differences in intensity of faith and views of multilateral institutions in building a regional order. If realism represented one extreme end of a scale and multilateralism represented the other end, Leifer and his lingering doubts about multilateral institutions would probably be placed nearer to the realist end while Koh and his affinity for idealism based on consensus-building would also be more supportive of multilateralism with some caution in the area of national interests. Mabhubani would be seeking aspects at both ends for the construction of a new pecking order.

Despite their differences, these discourses hold similar messages--that Singapore's long-term survival is dependent on its being a proactive and sociable member of a regional order, be it with a core that is accommodationist, civilisationally-oriented or idealistically pragmatic. Singapore's policy-makers have equated security risks with the consequences of a collapse of the normative framework governing the regional order. This normative framework, according to Leifer, requires a "set of shared assumptions about the interrelationships among resident and external states". (69)

While Leifer had some reservations about the effectiveness of multilateral institutions (e.g. ARF was an "imperfect diplomatic instrument" (70)), all are in favour of balancing the interests of a small state with the community at large. The effectiveness of multilateral ASEAN institutions like ASEAN+3 among other ASEAN fora, Mabhubani argued, is that Northeast Asian leaders can also "meet comfortably and discuss common challenges" (71) and remain peaceful in the region in which Singapore is embedded.

Leifer noted that the engagement of major powers in Northeast Asia is such an enduring feature that it was already in place during the Cold War when ASEAN institutions were far weaker; in this, credit should also be given to major powers in the region for containing conflicts "within manageable bounds and within a framework of constraint imposed by the sense of prudence". (72) Leifer also admitted that despite his doubts about multilateral institutions in fostering regional order, ASEAN has the "attendant cohesion displayed in crises" and that its "institutionalised dialogues with industrialised states are a re.ection of its international standing". (73)

Mabhubani and Koh also agree on looking at history to determine patterns of Chinese regional behaviour. Mabhubani noted that "for such a large country as China, it is surprising that China has a minimal imperial tradition outside its borders" and that, in many periods of its history, "China could have easily expanded its empire beyond its borders but it expressed no desire to do so". (74)

Without being deterministic about zero-sum realism in great power diplomacy, Koh argues that, if history was a guide (albeit an uncertain one), China would behave in a relatively benign manner as it had done in the past when it was powerful. (75) Like Mabhubani, Koh argues that "looking to the past for lessons to extrapolate to the future is a good start" (76) but being a pragmatist, he also warned that this should not be excessive. Even during the Cold War, Leifer, who was arguably more realist than Mabhubani and Koh, opined that East Asia was not a region where any one state was able to "exercise a dominating influence" and where the balance of between global and local adversaries is not "decisively weighted". (77)

By bringing China into the family of nations through the construction of multilateral institutions, Koh argued that China "will have to learn to play by the international rules and to act responsibly ... with the best possible outcome for the United States, Japan and China to co-operate in finding a balance of power in the Asia-Pacific". (78) Koh believes that engagement brings about exposure to regional and international opinions which is important because "no country is immune from the pressure of world opinion". (79)

Engaging China and embracing her as a member of the family of nations is very much similar to Leifer's argument for engagement within a regional order and Mabhubani's search for a new consensus. (80) Arising from Koh's seventh pillar of Singapore's foreign policy--the willingness of Singapore to work with other countries to ensure a stable and peaceful environment in the region --Koh argues unequivocally that he believed "it is better to engage China than to contain her" and that "it is not possible for either the United States or the United States and Japan, acting together, to stop China's progress". (81)

Koh and the ASEAN-China EPG had also entrenched the principle of operating within a regional order as one of great importance. While ASEAN wished to have the best possible relations with China, the grouping acknowledged that there are other stakeholders (India, Japan, US and the EU) in Southeast Asia and would cooperate with them all to promote regional peace and security. (82) A successful relationship with Southeast Asia (Singapore included) will prove that China's rise will be peaceful and non-threatening to the region.

Mabhubani's thoughts complement this because he fundamentally believes that China's rise will be peaceful and that the threat is a form of misperception by the West:
 Given the increasing sophistication of Chinese political discourse,
 it is remarkable how few Western minds understand the scope and
 significance of the changes China has made. Not many Chinese are
 willing to speak openly about their frustration with Western
 pundits, who continue to try to paint China in black and white
 terms. (83)

Unlike the West, the East including Singapore and ASEAN, have fewer problems understanding the subtleties of China's and India's rise and can engage them in fora where leaders can talk about regional issues freely.

Mabhubani also pointed out that post-Deng China continued to support the new emerging consensus among East Asian nations for regional order: "Deng Xiaoping's pragmatic wisdom has outlived him, becoming firmly embedded in Chinese political culture" which "explains why China's relations with virtually all of its neighbors have actually improved since he died". (84)

The necessity of India's involvement in ASEAN fora is even more obvious given Mabhubani's view of India as a natural meeting point for all major civilisations. In his view, India has a natural role to "be a bridge between the East and the West" with its Bollywood's ability "to overcome the Hindu-Muslim divide" and its historical accommodation of "so many civilisations--including Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic and Christian cultures--and how most of them have lived in peace with each other for most of its history". (85) Koh agreed and argued that given "India's long and benign historical ties with Southeast Asia, India could play a constructive role in the [region's] security equation." (86)

Finally, even the most pragmatic of the three, Prof Tommy Koh, does not unquestioningly convert to idealism without the necessary caution in the form of pragmatism. In fact some commentators have described him as an idealist operating within a realist regional order and framework. (87) He also subscribes to the mantra that "one should always have ideals, but be prepared to adjust to reality". (88) At times, all three revert back to Leifer's English school which incorporates realist elements of national interests in searching for the regional order and the assumption that a multilateral organisation like ARF is dependent on a pre-existing stable order and that it is not in a position to create it. (89) All of them recognise the limits of multilateralism but understand its necessity.

(1) Kishore Mabhubani, The New Asian Hemisphere (New York: Public Affairs, 2008), p. 1.

(2) Ibid., p. 2.

(3) Ibid., p. 18.

(4) Tommy Koh, The Quest for World Order Perspectives of a Pragmatic Idealist (Singapore: Federal Publications, 1998), p. 178.

(5) Michael Leifer, Selected Works on Southeast Asia, ed. Chin Kin Wah and Leo Suryadinata (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2005), p. ix.

(6) Michael Leifer, Singapore's Foreign Policy (Great Britain: Routledge, 2000), p. 26.

(7) Ibid., p. 83.

(8) Jurgen Haacke, "Michael Leifer, the Balance of Power and International Relations Theory", in Order and Security in Southeast Asia Essays in Memory of Michael Leifer, ed. Joseph Chinyong Liow and Ralf Emmers (Great Britain: Routledge, 2006), pp. 49-50.

(9) Tommy Koh, The Quest for World Order Perspectives of a Pragmatic Idealist, p. 178.

(10) Leifer, Singapore's Foreign Policy, p. 160.

(11) Ibid., p. 119.

(12) Ibid., p. 159.

(13) Michael Leifer, "The ASEAN Peace Process: A Category Mistake", in Michael Leifer: Selected Works on Southeast Asia, p. 127.

(14) Tommy Koh, "Southeast Asia", in America's Role in Asia: Asian Views (San Francisco: Asia Foundation, 2004), p. 40.

(15) Leifer, Singapore's Foreign Policy, p. 61.

(16) Michael Leifer, "Taiwan and Southeast Asia", in Michael Leifer: Selected Works on Southeast Asia, p. 279 and Michael Leifer, "China in Southeast Asia: Interdependence and Accommodation", in Michael Leifer: Selected Works on Southeast Asia, p. 16.

(17) Michael Leifer, "China in Southeast Asia: Interdependence and Accommodation", in Michael Leifer: Selected Works on Southeast Asia, p. 16.

(18) Leifer, Singapore's Foreign Policy, pp. 108-9.

(19) Goh Chok Tong, "Geopolitics in Asia", Keynote Address by Prime Minister, Mr Goh Chok Tong, to the Asia Society Conference, 13 May 1993, at the Hotel Okura, Tokyo, Singapore Government Press Release No. 15/May 02-1/93/05/13.

(20) Leifer, Singapore's Foreign Policy, p. 26.

(21) The ARF consists of the ten ASEAN member states (Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Burma, Laos and Cambodia), the 12 ASEAN dialogue partners (Australia, Canada, China, Democratic People's Republic of Korea, South Korea, United States, India, Japan, New Zealand, Russia, Mongolia and the EU) and the one ASEAN observer (Papua New Guinea).

(22) Goh Chok Tong, "Keynote Address by Prime Minister, Mr Goh Chok Tong, to the Asia Society Conference".

(23) Michael Leifer, "The Balance of Power and Regional Order", in The Balance of Power in East Asia, ed. Michael Leifer (Hong Kong: Royal United Services Institute, 1986), p. 154.

(24) Michael Leifer, ASEAN's Search for Regional Order Faculty Lecture 12 (Singapore: Graham Brash, 1987), p. 1.

(25) Michael Leifer, "The Role and Paradox of ASEAN", in The Balance of Power in East Asia, ed. Michael Leifer, p. 119.

(26) Leifer, ASEAN's Search for Regional Order Faculty Lecture 12, p. 2.

(27) Ibid.

(28) Ang Cheng Guan, "Michael Leifer on Cambodia and the Third Indochina Conflict", in Order and Security in Southeast Asia Essays in Memory of Michael Leifer, p. 162.

(29) Donald Emerson, "Shocks of Recognition: Leifer, Realism, and Regionalism in Southeast Asia", in Order and Security in Southeast Asia Essays in Memory of Michael Leifer, p. 19.

(30) Leifer, Singapore's Foreign Policy, p. 115.

(31) Jusuf Wanandi, "ASEAN and China Form Strategic Partnership", Jakarta Post, 15 Dec. 2005 at <> [15 Dec. 2005].

(32) Ibid.

(33) Leifer, Singapore's Foreign Policy, p. 120.

(34) Ibid., p. 137.

(35) Kishore Mabhubani, "Singapore in the United Nations Security Council", in The Little Red Dot, ed. Tommy Koh and Chang Li Lin (Singapore: World Scientific and Institute of Policy Studies), 2005, p. 91.

(36) Kishore Mabhubani, Can Asians Think? (Singapore: Times Media, 2002), p. 96.

(37) Mabhubani, The New Asian Hemisphere, p. 81.

(38) Tommy Koh, The United States and East Asia (Singapore: Times Academic Press, 1995), p. 2.

(39) Tommy Koh, "Asian Values Reconsidered", in Asia and Europe Essays and Speeches by Tommy Koh, ed. Yeo Lay Hwee and Asad Latif (Singapore: Asia Europe Foundation, 2000), p. 57.

(40) Mabhubani, Can Asians Think?, p. 159.

(41) Ibid., p. 160.

(42) Mabhubani, The New Asian Hemisphere, pp. 81-2.

(43) Mabhubani, Can Asians Think?, pp. 154-5.

(44) Tommy Koh, "What Can East Asia Learn from the European Union", in Asia and Europe Essays and Speeches by Tommy Koh, ed. Yeo Lay Hwee and Asad Latif (Singapore: Asia Europe Foundation, 2000), p. 60.

(45) Ibid.

(46) Tommy Koh, The Quest for World Order Perspectives of a Pragmatic Idealist, p. 177.

(47) Leifer, ASEAN's Search for Regional Order Faculty Lecture 12, p.18.

(48) Leifer, Singapore's Foreign Policy, p. 121.

(49) Jurgen Haacke, "Michael Leifer, the Balance of Power and International Relations Theory", in Order and Security in Southeast Asia Essays in Memory of Michael Leifer, p. 47.

(50) Tommy Koh, "Eight Lessons on Negotiations", in The Little Red Dot, ed. Tommy Koh and Chang Li Lin (Singapore: World Scienti.c and Institute of Policy Studies), 2005, p. 199.

(51) Tommy Koh, The United States and East Asia, 1995, pp. 20-1.

(52) Leifer, Singapore's Foreign Policy, p. 120.

(53) Tommy Koh, The United States and East Asia, 1995, p. 63.

(54) Tommy Koh, Rodolfo Severino and Jusuf Wanadi, "China and ASEAN: Roadmap to Future", The Business Times, 14 Dec. 2005 <> [1 June 2008].

(55) Tommy Koh, The United States and East Asia, p. 16.

(56) Tommy Koh, "ASEAN at 40: Perception and Reality", US Korea Council website at <> [2 June 2008].

(57) Tommy Koh, "Southeast Asia", in America's Role in Asia: Asian Views, p. 38.

(58) Tommy Koh, The Quest for World Order Perspectives of a Pragmatic Idealist, p. 177.

(59) Ministry of Foreign Affairs, "Transcript of Remarks On Malaysia-Singapore Relations by Minister for Foreign Affairs, Prof S Jayakumar in Parliament, 16 May 2002", 16 May 2002 at < view_press.asp?post_id=1262> [15 Sept. 2008].

(60) Chin Kin Wah, "The Foreign Policy of Singapore", in Order and Security in Southeast Asia Essays in Memory of Michael Leifer, p. 211.

(61) ANI India, "India's 'Look East' Policy Showing Results on Ground, says Manmohan (Re-issue)", 20 Nov. 2007, Thaiindian News Website at < newsportal/.../indias-look-east-policy-showing-results-on-ground-says -manmohanreissue_1005792.html> [7 Nov. 2008].

(62) Tommy Koh, "Southeast Asia", in America's Role in Asia: Asian Views, p. 40.

(63) Tommy Koh, The Quest for World Order Perspectives of a Pragmatic Idealist, p. 177.

(64) Nandita Mallik, "India A Powerhouse : ASEAN", 13 Dec. 2005 at <> [11 Mar. 2006].

(65) Ibid.

(66) Jusuf Wanandi, "ASEAN and China Form Strategic Partnership", Jakarta Post, 15 Dec. 2005 at <> [15 Dec. 2005].

(67) Jusuf Wanandi, "ASEAN and China Form Strategic Partnership", Jakarta Post, 15 Dec. 2005 at <> [15 Dec. 2005].

(68) Nandita Mallik, "India a Powerhouse: ASEAN", 13 Dec. 2005 at <> [11 Mar. 2006].

(69) Michael Leifer, "The Balance of Power and Regional Order", in The Balance of Power in East Asia, p. 152.

(70) Leifer, Selected Works on Southeast Asia, p. 156.

(71) Mabhubani, The New Asian Hemisphere, p. 84.

(72) Michael Leifer, "The Balance of Power and Regional Order", in The Balance of Power in East Asia, p. 154.

(73) Leifer, ASEAN's Search for Regional Order Faculty Lecture 12, p. 15.

(74) Kishore Mabhubani, Beyond the Age of Innocence (New York: Public Affairs, 2005), p. 100.

(75) Tommy Koh, The United States and East Asia, p. 75.

(76) Ibid., pp. 74-5.

(77) Michael Leifer, "The Balance of Power and Regional Order", in The Balance of Power in East Asia, p. 143.

(78) Tommy Koh, The United States and East Asia, p. 75.

(79) Jurgen Haacke, ASEAN's Diplomatic and Security Culture (London and NY: Routledge, 2005), p. 90.

(80) Tommy Koh, The Quest for World Order Perspectives of a Pragmatic Idealist, p. 178.

(81) Tommy Koh, The United States and East Asia, p. 75.

(82) Tommy Koh, Rodolfo Severino and Jusuf Wanadi, "China and ASEAN: Roadmap to Future", The Business Times, 14 Dec. 2005 at <> [1 June 2008].

(83) Mabhubani, The New Asian Hemisphere, pp. 145-6.

(84) Ibid., p. 219.

(85) Ibid., pp. 170, 171.

(86) Tommy Koh, The United States and East Asia, p. 76.

(87) Tommy Koh, The Quest for World Order Perspectives of a Pragmatic Idealist, p. xiv.

(88) Ibid., p. xxi.

(89) Amitav Archaya, "Do Norms and Identity Matter? Community and Power in Southeast Asia's Regional Order", in Order and Security in Southeast Asia Essays in Memory of Michael Leifer, p. 86.


Lim Tai Wei ( is Research Fellow at the East Asian Institute. He has a law degree (LLB Hons) from the University of London, a First Class Honours degree in Japanese Studies (with merit in Political Science) from the National University of Singapore (NUS), an MA in Comparative Political Economy from NUS, and a second MA and PhD from Cornell University. Before joining EAI in 2008, he served at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs for seven years. His research interests include Japanese domestic politics, the Chinese oil industry, China-ASEAN relations, Sino-Japanese relations and Chinese history.
COPYRIGHT 2009 East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Wei, Lim Tai
Publication:China: An International Journal
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:9SING
Date:Mar 1, 2009
Previous Article:Principal agent theory and private property rights in China's economic reform.
Next Article:The "Good Neighbour Policy" in the context of China's foreign relations.

Related Articles
Malaysian foreign minister says ASEAN is no 'talk shop'.
India in the Indian Ocean.
Singapore minister tweaks Tibet history.
The new security drama in East Asia: the responses of U.S. allies and security partners to China's rise.
Nepal: An emerging strategic arena between New Delhi and Beijing.
China-U.S. joint statement on South Asia didn't target India, says Nirupama Rao.
Asia's changing power dynamics.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters