Singapore sounds an optimistic note but eyes tough year ahead as ASEAN chair

Foreign ministers prepare to pose for a group photo at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Foreign Ministers' Meeting retreat in Singapore February 6

The foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) recently met in Singapore from February 4 to 6. It was the first meeting of regional foreign ministers since Singapore took over ASEAN’s rotating chairmanship from the Philippines earlier this year. The foreign ministers’ retreat is regarded as a “curtain raiser” to the ASEAN summit, which will take place in April.

The gathering was an opportunity for ASEAN to collectively chart a direction in line with Singapore’s themes of “resilience” to strengthen ASEAN member states’ ability to withstand crisis, and “innovation” to increase regional integration and connectivity in such areas as digital technologies. It also facilitated an exchange of views on regional and international headwinds, which might derail ASEAN’s agenda in the year ahead. Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan expressed optimism about ASEAN’s future, but was clear-eyed about the challenges that lay before the grouping.

The city-state is well-placed to make progress on promoting the region’s digital economy. However, while Singapore is known to punch above its weight economically and diplomatically, old and new challenges should temper expectations in the year ahead.

The economy matters

An important priority for ASEAN will be continued economic progress, not least because this has real implications for the well-being of its 630 million people. Many of the region’s working poor remain vulnerable to backsliding, although important strides have been made in addressing extreme poverty.

Better living conditions will likely improve local support for further ASEAN integration and projects. Brexit has shown the dangers of the lack of public support for supra-national organizations—ASEAN must take heed. Increased prosperity will also boost the grouping’s geostrategic heft.

To this end, Singapore aims to establish an ASEAN smart cities network to leverage technological solutions to improve the lives of the people within ASEAN countries. It also seeks to boost economic integration and improve regional trade facilitation, especially in e-commerce. If all ASEAN member states are to benefit from such growth, Singapore will also have to put in place initiatives to bridge the digital divide in the region.

Navigating between competing great powers

In achieving its goals, ASEAN faces external and internal challenges, including a more assertive China. Beijing is simultaneously clenching its fist in the South China Sea and offering an open hand with the prospect of a Sinocentric economic network that could provide vast benefits to ASEAN countries in areas such as infrastructure development, even if concerns are mounting about what this means for Beijing’s broader influence in the region.

As China expands its footprint in Asia, the United States, which for decades brought strategic stability to the region, appears to be distracted at home and schizophrenic abroad. U.S. President Donald Trump and his advisers appear to have belatedly come to the realization that “America First” cannot mean “America Alone,” and multilateralism and a strong international network of allies and partners actually promote an “America First” agenda. But Trump has failed to follow through on the need to seek mutually beneficial policies, including on trade and climate change.

His decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal and the Paris climate change agreement has sent the unfortunate message that the United States is disengaging from Asia and the world. At Davos last month, Trump suggested a willingness to rejoin the TPP if the United States was able to strike a “substantially better” agreement. But there appears little appetite among the remaining 11 TPP countries to reopen negotiations.

Washington mainly views Southeast Asia through the lens of North Korea, which is not ideal since the issue puts the United States at odds with ASEAN. The grouping is reluctant to expel North Korea from the ASEAN Regional Forum since it does not want to be seen as parroting the U.S. line. Singapore needs to suggest ways in which the United States can meaningfully engage with the region and encourage this by highlighting what ASEAN brings to the table. This includes demonstrating, in the words of Singapore’s Ambassador-at-Large Bilahari Kausikan, “the utility of ASEAN-led multilateral diplomacy.”

ASEAN must also decide how to respond to the Trump administration’s push for an “Indo-Pacific” strategy that has raised Beijing’s suspicions about being encircled by U.S. allies. ASEAN might try to resurrect a 2013 Indonesian initiative to promote an “Indo-Pacific wide treaty of friendship and cooperation” to reduce China’s concerns.

A test of principles

A more assertive China and the United States’ relative neglect have undermined ASEAN unity in addressing critical issues

A more assertive China and the United States’ relative neglect have undermined ASEAN unity in addressing critical issues such as the South China Sea dispute.

ASEAN has an important role to play in protecting all states’ shared interest in adherence to international law, the peaceful settlement of disputes, and freedom of navigation. If ASEAN wants to maintain the rule of law, it cannot afford to remain silent, as it did in July 2017, when China threatened military action after Hanoi began drilling for oil and gas in Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone.

Vietnam has extended an oil concession to India. If New Delhi begins drilling and China repeats its bellicose behavior, ASEAN would face another critical test. Continued silence would bode poorly for the trajectory of the rule of law.

Electoral politics and other internal challenges

Achieving a unified position in dealing with great power competition is difficult enough, but ASEAN must also deal with internal issues that threaten to weaken the group’s cohesion.

The most significant issue in this regard is Myanmar’s harsh treatment of the Muslim Rohingya community in Rakhine State. The crisis has drawn international condemnation and frayed Myanmar’s relations with the Muslim-majority nations of Malaysia and Indonesia.

As ASEAN chair, Singapore will have the difficult task of helping to stem the ethnic violence and ensuring that humanitarian aid reaches displaced Rohingya communities in Myanmar and neighboring Bangladesh. The ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance is doing important work in this respect, but much more needs to be done. The crisis is stretching the region’s capacity to deal with the refugee influx, threatens to undermine ASEAN unity, deepens religious divisions, and increases the risk of violent extremism.

In Cambodia, the government’s crackdown on the opposition will put additional stress on ASEAN ahead of elections in July that will extend Prime Minister Hun Sen’s 30 years in power. Although the ASEAN principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of a member state will almost certainly be observed, Singapore will still need to address likely calls from some quarters for a tougher stance. Military-ruled Thailand is also likely to see controversial elections this year.

Another challenge comes in Malaysia, where the long-ruling coalition government is likely to resort to religious appeals to the Muslim-majority population to win elections this year in the face of corruption allegations. This creates the potential for ethnic clashes in the multiracial country, which could destabilize Singapore and the rest of the region. As ASEAN chair, Singapore needs to consider how the group can build interethnic resilience.

Singapore will need to encourage Indonesia as the group’s largest member to resume its role as a driving force in ASEAN, which Jakarta has neglected in recent years. Jakarta has lately demonstrated some leadership on spearheading humanitarian assistance to the Rohingya, but this has largely been in response to domestic politics, including radical Islamist groups seeking to politicize the issue.

Singapore’s relations with China

Singapore may find its leadership of ASEAN this year affected by its strained relations with China, which has criticized the ethnic Chinese-majority state for its close ties with the United States and firm stance on the South China Sea. Although Singapore does not take sides on parties’ specific claims, it has critical interests in adherence to international law, freedom of navigation, and ASEAN unity, which the dispute undermines.

The testy relations have provoked concerns within Singapore’s business community, thereby complicating foreign policy toward China. Soon after participating in a World Economic Forum event in Dalian where China’s hospitality and beneficence was in full display, this author overheard a Singaporean businessman complain in Hong Kong that the goodwill that the late Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had built up with the Chinese was being squandered by his son, the current prime minister. He asked what interests Singapore had in the South China Sea. It was clear that the long reach of China’s “sharp power” also extends to Singapore. China has been trying to influence Singapore’s business and even academic communities as well as various clan, cultural, and literary associations.

A principled approach pursued pragmatically

Singapore’s foreign policy has been characterized by its adherence to principle and pragmatism, which it will seek to apply in representing ASEAN in relations with external partners. Some consider these competing approaches, but one can argue that a principled approach is a pragmatic one, particularly for countries seeking shelter against the wanton exercise of raw power.

Singapore will need to stand firm against pressure to bend on issues of principle as ASEAN chair; its chairman’s statement that took note of the concerns of some ministers on “land reclamations and activities” in the South China Sea is a good start.

While Singapore is unlikely to budge on principles, it will take a pragmatic approach in how it seeks to communicate them. Singapore’s foreign minister has stressed “quiet but active diplomacy.” Its senior diplomats insist that Singapore’s message will not change, but it will exercise more care in how it communicates this to other parties.

Whether Singapore will be able to successfully navigate the challenging year ahead is still uncertain. Much will depend on sustained U.S. attention to the region on the security, economic, and diplomatic fronts. It will also depend on Singapore’s ability to persuade member states to work together to maintain ASEAN’s relevance and centrality. The work has already begun with ASEAN states reiterating the importance of maintaining ASEAN centrality and unity at the foreign ministers’ meeting. At stake will be the ability of ASEAN to chart its own course and the very character of the region itself. ASEAN and member states must decide whether a region governed by right, not might, is worth defending.