By Phuong Nguyen —
Singapore prime minister Lee Hsien Loong will pay an official visit to Washington, complete with a state dinner in his honor hosted by President Barack Obama, on August 1-2. The visit comes as the two countries celebrate the 50th anniversary of their diplomatic relations. Lee will be the first leader from Southeast Asia hosted for a state dinner at the Obama White House, a privilege enjoyed by only four other Asian leaders — from China, Japan, India, and South Korea — during Obama’s two terms.
The importance with which the administration accords the visit is evidence of the recognition in Washington that Singapore is an indispensable U.S. strategic partner and an anchor for U.S. engagement with the Southeast Asia region.
While the two countries have over the decades built a close and robust partnership spanning from trade and investment to defense and regional security and development cooperation, both sides know that the bilateral relationship is a mature one, with little low-hanging fruit left to pick. Ensuring the strength of the Singapore-U.S. partnership for decades to come hence requires continuous investment by both countries to identify new critical areas of cooperation and, increasingly, consult one another on a host of emerging trends and challenges under way in the wider Asia-Pacific region.
The United States and Singapore have recently begun to do so in cyber defense and biosecurity—two areas in which Singapore is well-positioned to become a leading regional U.S. partner — but more can be done. Of equal importance, the two partners should be creative in thinking about the structure and utility of bilateral dialogue mechanisms in future years.
As Washington works to bolster its economic footprint and engagement in Southeast Asia, it is crucial for the U.S. government to understand and appreciate how its closest economic partner in this region views the forces driving regional integration and economic development in twenty-first century Asia.
Since 2012, Washington and Singapore have conducted an annual Strategic Partnership Dialogue, an avenue for senior officials to review progress in ongoing areas of cooperation and discuss regional and global issues of mutual interest. Future U.S. administrations could expand the dialogue to include a consultation mechanism covering trade, economics, and innovation for government agencies and officials with relevant portfolios from both sides.
The bulk of U.S. investment in Asia is concentrated in ASEAN economies, and Singapore, home to over 5,000 U.S. companies operating in the region, serves as the logistical, research and development, legal, and judicial backbone for many of these companies.
Understanding this perspective—whether it be the role Singapore plans to play in the new China-led Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), or what it sees as emerging areas in which the United States needs to lead or help improve the rules of the road—will be critical to Washington’s ability to prepare for and respond to the economic landscape of an increasingly interconnected Asia.
Meanwhile, bilateral defense cooperation has made significant strides in recent years with rotational deployments of four U.S. Navy littoral combat ships through Changi Naval Base, the signing of an enhanced defense cooperation agreement last December, and regular flights over the South China Sea conducted by U.S. P-8A maritime patrol aircraft from Paya Lebar Air Base beginning in 2015. The two sides last year also agreed to establish high-level defense dialogue mechanisms.
In addition to areas in which the two governments have agreed to expand cooperation such as military technology and non-traditional security challenges, the United States can encourage Singapore to gradually play a bigger role in U.S.-led regional exercises, including in trilateral drills of the annual Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training exercise in Southeast Asian waters and the biannual Rim of the Pacific exercise in Hawaii.
At the same time, the popular narrative in Washington about what has come to be known as the “Singapore model” fostered by its founding father, Lee Kuan Yew — authoritarian and effective — needs to evolve if U.S. officials and policy analysts are to keep abreast of Singapore’s political trajectory. The landslide victory of the ruling People’s Action Party last September, along with Lee Kuan Yew’s death, has allowed Prime Minister Lee to propose a number of concrete changes to the political system designed to give the opposition a little more presence and influence in parliament in order to make the system “more open and contestable” in the future. Singaporeans both in and outside the government have been vigorously debating how their society ought to adapt at the current juncture, whether it is about the function of the civil service or the effectiveness of the education system.
But while the strength of the relationship gives Washington confidence, future U.S. policymakers may want to remember that Singapore is also a deft diplomatic balancer. Singapore policymakers have been strong believers in the strategic utility of U.S. leadership globally, and in the Asia Pacific in particular. Singapore leaders have consistently advocated for the United States to write the rules of trade and investment in Asia in the twenty-first century, and for China to abide by international rules and norms.
Yet they also see the importance of accommodating China’s rise and regional aspirations. Singapore, for instance, has been very supportive of both the AIIB and the planned “One Belt, One Road” initiative, and was one of the first countries in Asia to set up cooperation mechanisms with Beijing in response to these initiatives. It has also begun working with China to research the process for the internationalization of the renminbi. Singapore knows that it needs to be prepared to live in a region in which China may become the uncontested leader.
It is critical, therefore, for Washington to actively court Singapore, no matter how close and established the relationship, and at the same time tap into the perspectives gained from this partnership to calibrate U.S. strategy toward and engagement with the Southeast Asia region in the coming years.
Phuong Nguyen is an adjunct fellow at CSIS focused on Southeast Asia.