By Kumar David –
US-China relations got off to a rough start under the Biden Presidency when a diplomatic spat broke out at the 18 March sessions in Anchorage, Alaska. Ditto for relations with Russia; a few days earlier, asked if he thought Mr. Putin was a “killer,” he responded: “Mmm hmm, I do”, and also threatened “Putin is going to pay” for interfering in the 2020 election. Russia recalled its Washington Ambassador for “consultations”! My today is that when mighty elephants clash little creatures down on the ground are trampled. There are three small countries that need to be alarmed if there is serious deterioration of relations between the US and China; Taiwan, Singapore and Sri Lanka. Taiwan is unique so I will say no more. Seventy percent of Singapore’s people are of Chinese descent and China is its main trading partner, its investments, direct or indirect in China are enormous and the island state has succeeded in developing a very special relationship with Beijing. China is its biggest market – ours is the US. However Singapore is militarily close to the US which also provides its strategic umbrella. It is tiptoeing wisely between the elephants.
If tensions between the US and China sharpen both Singapore and Sri Lanka will be in stormy seas. Another factor in our case is India, the regional power. We are dependent on India in more ways than Singapore is on anybody, and our economy is in free fall while Singapore’s is strong. For these reasons our predicament is more precarious if these elephants clash. Unlike our presidents and prime ministers, past and present, the present and past leaders of Singapore are alert and intelligent, hence there is much to learn from how they manoeuvre and position themselves. Three cardinal implications that I read into PM Lee Hsien Loong’s recent BBC and World Economic Forum interviews are:
* Always put Singapore’s interests first and make it clear to the big powers that you have no intention of meddling or taking sides in geopolitical manoeuvres.
* Ensure that the Government of Singapore functions within the remit of Singaporean law and give no room for outsiders to allege that it curtails or violates its proper and binding responsibilities.
* Maintain fairness between ethnic communities (Chinese, Malay and Tamil) so that rifts that open the door to outside interference are precluded.
The US is determined to make the focus of its foreign policy under the Biden Administration ‘global human and democratic rights’. You can call it bogus if you like, nor do I have space here to explain why it is doing so. One certainty is that this is going to make the rest of Gotabaya’s term of office very rough. The US, though it is not a Council Member with a vote, supported from outside the tough anti SL-regime resolution in Geneva on 23 March carried 22-11 (14 abstentions including India and Japan). It also intends to enter the HR Council next year. Phew, so Gotabaya and his military will be in American cross-hairs.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in Alaska: “There are a number of areas where we are fundamentally at odds, including China’s actions in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Tibet and Taiwan . . .” America may take limited action against China over its “genocidal campaign” against Uighur Muslims. China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi reacted strongly, warning the US against meddling in its “internal affairs” and challenging its own rights record using the Black Lives Matter as an example. The Chinese unfortunately picked a bad example because the massive BLM movement drawing in whites, blacks and Hispanics is a demonstration of the strength not the weakness of a more open society. The attack on Putin too is focussed on issues of democratic rights and attempts to murder opposition leaders. Therefore to return to my starting point, given the turn of the Biden administration to rights issues as its foreign policy plank, Gotabaya would be wise to learn the three Singaporean bullet points that I reproduced above.