For years, Singapore has been considered a skilled practitioner of hedging between the world’s superpowers and not taking sides. Now it is one of the few Asian countries to openly condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Hours after Russian troops marched into Ukraine on February 24, Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, condemned the action as an “unprovoked invasion of a sovereign country.”
Days later, the city-state became one of the few Asian countries to announce its own unilateral sanctions against Russia, only the second time it has done so without a UN Security Council mandate.
“The world has changed profoundly,” Vivian Balakrishnan, Singapore’s foreign minister, said during a joint press conference in Berlin with his German counterpart, Annalena Baerbock, on April 4.
“I think it becomes even more crucial that this vital partnership that we have between Germany and Singapore is worth reinforcing and affirming, especially at a time like this,” he said.
A week earlier, on March 26, Singapore’s prime minister made an eight-day trip to the United States, becoming the first Southeast Asian leader to visit the White House since Joe Biden’s inauguration in January 2021.
Is Singapore choosing sides?
For years, Singapore was considered a skilled practitioner of hedging between the world’s superpowers and not taking sides.
Singapore has been branded the “China whisperer” in the US for acting as a go-between for Washington and Beijing. But the country’s response to the invasion of Ukraine has led some analysts to ponder its longer-term geopolitical interests.
Singapore has also been very public in its calls for US involvement in the Indo-Pacific as a hedge against a rising China, but until recently it “has done so while maintaining a posture of relative independence,” said Michael Barr, associate professor of international relations at Australia’s Flinders University.
“It has tried to maintain a posture of being everyone’s friend,” Barr said.
“It still doesn’t want to be anyone’s enemy,” Barr said, “but, under Lee Hsien Loong, it hasn’t invested very much in the maintenance of either the appearance of independence, nor the goodwill of China.”
“Whatever the cause, Singapore has very publicly aligned itself with the US,” Barr said, “proudly claiming the mantle of ‘America’s best friend in Southeast Asia.'”
Closer relations with EU?
Like the US, the European Union is seeing an opportunity to build better ties with Singapore and secure an ally in Southeast Asia.
The EU-Singapore Free Trade Agreement — Brussels’ first in Southeast Asia — entered into force November 2019.
The following year, bilateral trade in goods and services exceeded €100 billion.
The Netherlands is the second-largest recipient of Singaporean direct investment abroad, after China, valued around €70 billion as of 2020, according to Singapore’s Department of Statistics.
Singapore’s trade in goods with Germany increased year-over-year by 17.7% in 2021, to €15.8 billion.
On the security front, Singapore is part of the UK-led Five Power Defense Arrangements.
The country’s air force has trained at the Cazaux Air Base in France since the late 1990s. France is the second-largest provider of military equipment to Singapore, after the US. Germany comes third.
In December, a German naval frigate docked in Singapore’s Changi Naval Base for the first time in two decades. Both countries’ troops held a joint training-exercise in Germany last month.
Policy based on principles, not taking sides
Some analysts aren’t so sure whether Singapore’s response to the invasion of Ukraine points to any significant change of policy.
The city-state’s leaders have been keen to stress they didn’t sanction Russia out of solidarity with Western democracies, but in order to enforce international norms of sovereignty and territorial integrity.
For Singapore, these are “existential issues,” said Linda Lim, professor of corporate strategy and international business at the University of Michigan.
Singapore’s relations with the US, China and the EU have not changed, she said.
“The fundamental principles of territorial integrity, respect for the independence and sovereignty of nations, and to be free of the threat of being attacked by other nations … are essential pillars for peace and prosperity in the world,” Foreign Minister Balakrishnan said in Berlin in April.
“That is why, although we are a tiny city-state far away from Europe, we decided that we needed to take a stand,” he said. “Not take sides, but to take a stand on principle.”
Singapore was part of Malaysia before it became independent in 1965, and, as the 20th-smallest country in the world by land area, it is far more reliant than most on international law for security. With few natural resources of its own, it’s also dependent on free trade.
The government’s response to the Ukraine war also appears popular. A survey taken in early March by Blackbox Research, a pollster, found that 95% of Singaporeans sympathized with Ukraine and 60% backed sanctions on Russia. Only 4% said they opposed the sanctions.
How do Singapore’s interests align with the EU’s?
The columnist Chua Mui Hoong wrote recently in The Straits Times that Singapore’s foreign policy decisions shouldn’t be seen as “pro-West, anti-Russia or anti-China.” Instead, “they are pro-Singapore.”
The city-state’s officials have also sought to present their response to the invasion of Ukraine as based on Singapore’s own interests.
Brussels could play this to its advantage, analysts say. In a similar way, the EU also wants to chart its own path between the US and China.
In February 2021, the European Commission set out a new trade strategy based on the concept of “open strategic autonomy.”
Strong ties with the EU provide Singapore with more options for cooperation across a range of issues and make efforts to navigate the fraught US-China relationship “somewhat easier,” Ja Ian Chong, an associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore , told DW.
“Singapore still has to face a world where choices are starker and cooperation less easily taken-for-granted,” he said.
“Such conditions increase the EU’s importance to Singapore,” Chong added.