Engaging the Powers

Asad-Ul Iqbal Latif. Between Rising Powers: China, Singapore and India. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2007.

Hedley Bull’s The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics is premised on the idea that states form a society without government. In citing that apparent paradox, Bull upholds the position of Hugo Grotius on international reality against the traditions of both Thomas Hobbes and Immanuel Kant. In the Hobbesian or realist tradition, international relations are defined by conflict between states, peace being but “a period of recuperation from the last war and preparation for the next”. In the Kantian or universalist tradition, by contrast, humans seek companionship in transnational relationships, with the horizontal conflict of ideology between liberators and oppressed cutting across the boundaries of states and possessing the potential to sweep the system of states away.

In between these two grand extremes stands the Groatian or internationalist tradition, which argues that sovereigns or states are limited in their conflicts by common rules and institutions, but that they do not thereby lose their character as the principal players in international politics. Between the nightmare of perpetual war in the making, and the dream of perpetual peace, intervenes the imperative of commerce. “The particular international activity which, on the Groatian view, best typifies international activity as a whole is neither war between states, nor horizontal conflict cutting across the boundaries of states, but trade—or, more generally, economic and social intercourse between one country and another.” Grotius’ emphasis on the freedom of the seas is an early indication of the importance of trade in the proper functioning of the international system, a leitmotif of Singapore’s worldview as well.

Indisputably, Singapore’s foreign policy does not correspond to every element of the Groatian tradition that other authors have identified. Martin Wight, for example, emphasizes the primacy of domestic policy in the Groatian paradigm, contrasting it with both the realist approach—which declares the primacy of foreign policy—and the revolutionist promotion of international ideological bonds in Kantianism. Clearly, the primacy of domestic policy over foreign imperatives does not apply to a trade-dependent city-state.

That said, other elements of the Groatian tradition, such as its emphasis on the rights of peaceful trade in civilization, are reflected in Singapore’s outlook. Indeed, so great is the salience of trade in Singapore’s foreign relations that N. Ganesan, looking back on 40 years of independence, argues that “Singapore has outlived its archrealist outlook in foreign policy”. While the core values of its foreign policy output are territoriality, sovereignty, internal political order and economic growth, with both territoriality and sovereignty being embedded in a realist notion of international relations, the imperatives of trade and prosperity call for a liberal cooperative approach. Noting that, as a rule, the city-state is prepared to trade with any country whatever be its ideological complexion, Ganesan goes so far as to claim that “the Singapore government has successfully established a trade policy that is effectively decoupled from its foreign policy”. Unless trading relations with other states are explicitly subject to international sanctions, they are regarded as being “outside the bounds of foreign policy”. Ganesan overstates his case here: the notion of decoupling is problematic because it suggests that Singapore ostensibly would be prepared to put its trading interests ahead of the general interests of its foreign policy, an argument that is difficult to understand. Instead, what is true, as Ganesan himself notes elsewhere in his book, is that Singapore’s economic initiatives, such as inviting investment from the advanced economies, are part of a broader attempt to achieve “national viability by twinning its interests with those of friendly great powers. The synergies achieved from such congruence were worth much more than its economic implications”. Far from trade policy being decoupled from foreign policy, the two are linked inextricably. Linda Y.C. Lim underscores this point in a contribution to The Political Economy of Foreign Policy in Southeast Asia, where she argues that Singapore’s foreign policy-makers have used its success as a market-driven economy, opposed to centrally-planned models of Third World development, to argue that the city-state must not be allowed to fail. “The implication is that the West has an interest in ensuring Singapore’s continued political survival as a sovereign nation (should that ever be threatened), which itself hinges on its economic viability.”

Trade, then, is an integral part of Singapore’s sense of self, and the Groatian perspective on trade as constituting the characteristic activity of the society of states is consonant with Singapore’s expectations of security in the anarchical society of states. But that selfhood is based on broader requirements of international stability and order. Here, as even the internationalist Grotius acknowledges, states and not supranational bodies remain the key players in international affairs. For international relations to be stable—a condition that is a prerequisite for trade to play the beneficial role which it does for countries like Singapore that depend on access to foreign markets and investment—what is required is a balance among the great powers which can keep the peace. The imperative of giving the great powers a stake in Singapore’s survival and success led it to adopt a balance-of-power strategy anchored in a realist approach. As Bull readily acknowledges, states operate in an unequal world. Great powers, whether they engage in war or in trade, strive to lay down the rules of international engagement. How they behave defines the parameters of both opportunity and threat for the rest. Unlike the unfortunate Melians, who spurned the Athenian offer of achieving security through incorporation into their economic empire because they preferred the liberty which they enjoyed in the Spartan scheme of things, Singapore plays by the survivalist rules of the game: great powers do what they want and small powers do what they must in order to survive. In Thucydides’ Melian Dialogue, the Melians turn down the Athenian offer, preferring to trust and to invoke, to Athenian astonishment, sources of security such as signs and divinations. Not so Singapore, which has taken Thucydides’ salutary tale to heart. It thus has placed itself vicariously within a realist tradition of thinking about international relations stretching from Sun Tzu, Thucydides and Chanakya Kautilya through Niccolo Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes to Hans Morgenthau and the reworking of realist theory into neorealism or structural realism in the work of Kenneth E. Waltz.

Singapore’s foreign policy reflects simultaneously, then, a marked Groatian emphasis on liberal internationalism in the pursuit of aspects of security, including the critical economic aspect, but with elements of a realist balance-of-power strategy on key issues such as physical survival. The fact that economic links with the rest of the world are as crucial as physical security to an island trading-state helps explain why these aspects of Singapore’s foreign policy are so closely linked. The foreign policy of Singapore could be seen as an extended commentary on Bull’s theoretical forays into international history. The anarchical society is leavened by the capacity of trade to act as an alternative to war, but that society is characterized ultimately by the capacity of states to use power to pursue their interests, to the point of using, or threatening to use, force to secure those interests. Great powers naturally have greater latitude to do this than do other powers. Singapore’s interactions with powers, great, greater or rising, acknowledge this uncomfortable reality.

Balance of Power

The concept of a balance of power is a notoriously elusive one. If invoked in its classical European sense of rival, competing or smaller powers lining up to restore a balance disrupted or disturbed by the emergence of a hegemon, then contemporary Southeast Asia is a good example of the absence of a balance of power. Had such a principle operated in the region, countries from Thailand to the Philippines and Singapore in between would have closed ranks against the United States, the sole superpower and therefore the hegemon par excellence today, which they have palpably not done. Instead, they have preferred to line up with it. Yet, the notion of a balance of power has been a perennial theme in the pronouncements of Singapore’s leaders, who have sought to utilize its lessons for the city-state’s survival and security. They appear to reflect Leifer’s English School approach to the concept and his application of it to Southeast Asia and Singapore. To Leifer, balance of power refers both to a situation—the distribution of power—and to a policy of preventing the undue dominance of one or more states that would monopolise the terms on which regional order was made and sustained. Jurgen Haacke draws attention to the fact that Leifer distinguished between the adversarial balance of power tradition linked to realism and expressed in countervailing political-military strategy; and the associative, Groatian balance of power tradition. Leifer—and this might be said of Singapore’s leaders, too—believed that where associative arrangements might not be sufficient to prevent a rise of a hegemonic power, countervailing arrangements might be called for.

Singapore’s leaders have articulated the principles of its foreign policy for many years now. Lee Kuan Yew encapsulated the realities of a small state’s survival early into independence by noting that Singapore’s foreign policy “must be one to encourage, first, the major powers in the world to find it—if not in their interests to help us—at least in their interests not to have us go worse” because, in the last resort, “it is power which decides what happens and, therefore, it behoves us to ensure that we always have overwhelming power on our side”. S. Rajaratnam fleshed out the regional elements of the outlook, noting that because Singapore was regarded by the world and by its neighbours as a “strategic key” in the area, “we shall ensure that our foreign policy and our defence policy do not increase tensions and fears among our neighbours”. Southeast Asia was a battleground of great-power politics; if Singapore became a pawn, the chances of military conflict breaking out would be greater. By not falling into the hands of one power bloc, Singapore would ensure that an opposing power bloc did not panic into taking “desperate and dangerous counter-measures”. A decade later, Lee Khoon Choy made the same point when he remarked that Singapore’s foreign policy had sought to ensure that it did not become a pawn of any single great power. Were this to happen, it would circumscribe Singapore’s independence while increasing tensions and dangers of war in the area. He argued that “if one small state in this part of the world allows itself to become a pawn in this manner, there are likely to be reactions from other big powers; neighbouring states may also feel threatened and feel compelled to allow a similar role to another big power”.

Elaborating on by then an almost existential motif in Singapore’s foreign policy thinking, Brigadier-General Lee Hsien Loong, then Political Secretary (Defence), gave a comprehensive account of the security options of small states in a speech to the Singapore Institute of International Affairs on 16 October 1984. Though he did not speak about Singapore in particular, it was obvious that he was drawing on the Republic’s security perceptions and assessments. He mentioned four classes of strategy—development, diplomacy, deterrence and defence—as many of which as possible a small state needed to apply to survive. On diplomacy, he noted that it encompasses the traditional strategies of alliance, non-alignment, neutrality and balance of power. The problem with alliances is that they fail when they cease to be in the interest of the dominant partner; also, they can impinge on the independence of the weaker partner. Non-alignment is more of a slogan than a policy prescription. Neutrality, as Cambodia proves, means that a small state’s refusal to pick quarrels with others does not necessarily mean that others will refuse to pick a quarrel with it. “Innocence is no protection against crime.” A balance of power policy, therefore, can be more productive in certain circumstances. For a small state, the policy “depends on the competing interests of several big powers in the region, rather than on linking the nation’s fortunes to one overbearing partner. The big powers can keep one another in check, and will prevent any one of them from dominating the entire region, and so allow small states to survive in the interstices between them”. True, the equilibrium can be upset by a power changing course or withdrawing from the contest; also, a small state cannot “manipulate the big powers with impunity”. Hence, for states situated “fortuitously at one of these points of balance, it is wiser to keep to the balance as long as possible, rather than to tilt for one power, or to seek to exclude all of them”. Also, a small state should try to strengthen ties with its neighbours by refraining from provocative behaviour, paying regard to their sensitivities in the management of its domestic policies, and creating a network of symbiotic relationships.

Underpinning Singapore’s view of international relations is the reality that it neither has, nor has it pretended to possess, the ability to create or even to contribute decisively to a balance of the great powers. Nevertheless, it has benefited from an evolving balance because of its significance to that balance, and because of its policies towards it. As for significance, Singapore needed to fulfil three conditions, Yuan-li Wu argues in Strategic Significance of Singapore: A Study in Balance of Power. First, the great powers must be convinced that the city-state is of considerable strategic and/or economic importance to each of them; secondly, that the “direct interests of each big power can be adequately served without bringing Singapore under its sole domination to the exclusion of other big powers”; and thirdly that “the interests of each can be served only by preventing the sole domination of Singapore by others”.

It did fulfil those conditions during the formative phase of its international relations, which occurred during the Cold War. First, Singapore’s strategic significance made it of great importance to the great powers, especially the superpowers. Lying at the conjunction of sea routes from Europe and India in the west, from China, Japan, Indochina and Thailand in the north, from Borneo and the Moluccas in the east, and from Java and Australasia in the south, Singapore is one of the many islands that can allow a naval power to dominate the Straits of Malacca as it leads out to the South China Sea. However, unlike the other islands, as far-flung as the Andamans and Sri Lanka, which dominate the 300-mile northern approaches to the South China Sea, Singapore lies on the Straits of Malacca, which are only 40-mile wide. Were a great power to control the city-state, its capacity to influence navigation in the economically and strategically important Straits would be considerable. Thus, in the early years of Singapore’s independence, both the United States and the Soviet Union might have been willing to “fill the vacuum left by Britain’s military pull-out”, providing Singapore with an easy choice at the very start of a difficult independence. However, the Republic decided “not to bargain her vast strategic assets to the superpowers in return for protection”. That choice led to the second condition. The two superpowers were willing to permit Singapore this independence of action because their interests did not require them to act otherwise, particularly since maritime Southeast Asia was not as intense an arena of Cold War confrontation as was mainland Southeast Asia. Indeed, it was one of Singapore’s nightmares that the Malay Right in post1965 Kuala Lumpur might encourage American intervention in the deteriorating communal situation in Malaysia, turning the country into “another fire-storm like Vietnam”. That would pose a terrible choice for Singapore, but Lee Kuan Yew was adamant that, no matter what happened across the Causeway, the Americans would not be allowed to turn Singapore into another Santo Domingo, intervening to install a government to their liking. While it is unclear whether the United States would have intervened in Malaysia given its liabilities in Vietnam, it was that fear which had made Lee declare soon after independence: “It is fundamental. If the British bases go, there will be no American bases in Singapore.” Thirdly, however, though neither superpower tried to bring Singapore under its exclusive influence, each was convinced sufficiently of the city-state’s importance to be against its domination by the other superpower.

These conditions have held through the Cold War and its aftermath, marked by the rise of China and India. What also has held, therefore, is Singapore’s strategy of encouraging the presence of all great powers in Southeast Asia.

China and India

The entry of China and India into the global economy in the last two decades of the 20th century marked a major shift in human affairs. China was not just another contemporary player but “the biggest player in the history of man”. China’s transition at the end of the 1970s towards what it characterized as a socialist market economy—but what a commentator described astutely as China’s replacement of Marxism-Leninism with Market-Leninism—heralded a radical change in the direction of international relations. Then, when India decided to join the global economy in the 1990s after its stymied attempt to do so in the mid-1980s, it entrenched Asia’s claim to a prominent place in the economic and political scheme of things.

This was not the first time that China and India had been ascendant economically. As late as in 1700, their shares of world income had been comparable to Europe’s. But colonialism and the emergence of the United States had disrupted the balance of economic power in the 18th century. The disruption had continued well into the 20th century. Eric Hobsbawm’s periodization of modern history—the Age of Revolution (1789-1848), the Age of Capital (1848-75), the Age of Empire (1875-1914) and the Age of Extremes (1914-91)—draws attention to a Eurocentric world order that did not disappear completely with formal decolonization after World War II. The Cold War struggle for supremacy was waged between two superpowers, one a European offshoot and the other a Eurasian power whose political culture was anchored in its Russian inheritance as a European great power. Even as they had supplanted the players of a Europe-centred colonial order, they had to work with its legacy as managers and guarantors of international security. Their contest—with its Marshall Plan, NATO, Warsaw Pact and its COMECON—had demarcated the outer possibilities of world order. But when the Cold War ended and China, which had embarked on reform during that conflict, saw its reforms take off, what it unleashed was nothing less than the collective memory of a billion able people hungry for success after a century of humiliation at Western hands; the depredations of war waged by an imperial Japan that had replicated the colonial European quest for exclusive spheres of influence; civil war, revolutionary independence, early euphoria, and then autarchy and the domestically-inflicted disasters of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. It is that energy undeterred by the cruelties of history that the existing great powers would have to incorporate into the evolution of a new international order.

India, with another billion people, was also bringing its collective memory into contemporary play. Colonialism may well have delivered India from the Asiatic mode of production into a capitalist global economy, as Karl Marx argued, but it had done so on terms not Indian. Among other indicators, Indian per capita income had fallen under East India Company rule from 1757 to 1857 while British gains had been substantial, and the free trade imperialism imposed on India and other British colonies had favoured British exports. The loss of autonomy under colonial rule had driven the early leaders of independent India to protect the country’s fledgling economic autonomy from foreign capital and multilateral financial organizations that they did not trust because they could not control them. However, the planning system in independent India had led to the country basically excluding itself from the world trading system. In 1991, the costs of this policy became clear when India faced a parlous foreign exchange situation. The problem prompted its leaders to embark on the need for reform by exploring export markets instead of protecting domestic markets through import substitution. Their strategy entailed making Indian products competitive by liberalizing the domestic economy. Also, as China’s entry into the global economy delivered dramatic results without eroding palpably the country’s freedom of action on the domestic and foreign fronts; and as India saw that instead of looking at a constrained China it would have to deal with an increasingly prosperous China that would also be an increasingly powerful China, it took the plunge into contemporary history.

It was against this background that Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew delivered the keynote speech at the official opening of the eponymous School of Public Policy in Singapore in April 2005. Interestingly, the country’s founding Prime Minister and architect of its foreign policy chose to speak on China and India. Beginning on a personal note, he said that he had taken a deep interest in both China and India ever since he had begun his political life in 1950. “Like all democratic socialists of the 1950s, I have tried to analyse and forecast which giant would make the grade. I had hoped it would be democratic India, not communist China.” Comparing the two countries, Lee went on to examine the record of their public and private sectors; the priority they placed on education in their development; their ability to attract foreign investment; the challenges they face; and the role of intangible factors such as ethnicity and national ethos in the performance of the two nations. His conclusion was open-ended: “Whether China or India will prove to be the better model for other developing countries we will know by the middle of this century.” Although Lee was speaking of China and India as competing models for developing nations and not developed Singapore, it was clear from the thrust of his remarks that he saw the two powers as helping to set the tone for the rest of Asia in the coming decades. Other countries would have to ponder possible outcomes and navigate their course accordingly.

Singapore had begun to do so already. The current phase of its engagement with China goes back to the 1970s. It welcomed the possibilities of the rapprochement between the United States and China in 1971 that led to a reordering of Asian affairs during the Cold War. Singapore’s engagement with China gathered steam when Deng Xiaoping launched his definitive reforms in 1978. Indeed, Deng saw the possible contours of post-communist China during his 1978 visit to Singapore, which had succeeded in combining remarkable economic progress with an authoritarian stability that was familiar in the Leninist idiom of Chinese politics. Singapore and China drew closer as Asia’s most populous power embraced market reforms and opened its borders to foreign trade and investment. Singapore became a vocal advocate of the need for other countries to engage China, facilitate its inclusion in the world order, and hence give it a stake in the preservation of a prosperous, peaceful and stable international order. Other powers were urged to give post-revolutionary China a place in the status quo commensurate with its status so that Beijing would have reason to be a status quo power and not revert, rebuffed, to revisionism.

Lee’s speech in 2005 did not detract from that fundamental approach to China, but it did draw attention to the other Asian power that Singapore was also courting: India. Socialist China’s self-imposed quarantine from the global economy had survived less than three decades of revolutionary fervour after independence in 1949, the demise of Marxism-Leninism as the state’s legitimizing ideology following swiftly from the death of Chairman Mao Zedong in 1976. In democratic India, what was at stake four decades after independence in 1947 was the future of a bureaucratic planning system that empowered the state but bred inertia and inefficiency in the economy, a system that critics mockingly labelled the Licence Raj after the expired mandate of the British Raj. As India returned to the global economy, haltingly at first in the mid1980s, Singapore seized that transitional moment, encouraging the reform process and pursuing closer relations with the subcontinental giant. Singapore’s efforts did not bear fruit immediately, one reason being that India’s closely-contested politics and the presence of powerful domestic interests threatened by a foreign economic presence precluded the creation of a quick political consensus on reforms. But that consensus did take shape sufficiently to permit India to sign the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) with Singapore in 2005. Singapore could take some satisfaction from its success in having read India correctly enough to persevere through the apparent anarchy of its politics.

Engaging Rising Powers

There is a critical difference between Singapore’s engagement of United States and other powers during the Cold War, and its policy towards China and India now. The earlier set of powers was mature; was established in the international order; and collectively exercised preponderant power in the international system, which they sought to legitimize by supplying international values, norms and institutions consonant with their own interests. China and India are, by contrast, rising great powers. They are entering the turf; they are not guarding it. They can be expected to play by the rules, but also test the rules of play. Muthiah Alagappa goes so far as to declare that nearly every major power—China, Japan, Russia and India—except the United States “is dissatisfied with the present distribution of power, and its status and role in the Asian international system”. Hence, engaging rising great powers, which bring their growing expectations and untested intentions to the international system, is not the same as living with existing great powers.

This point is made powerfully by Randall L. Schweller in a seminal essay, “Managing the rise of great powers: history and theory”. After assessing why rising powers are dangerous—because they are tempted to expand—and why they need to expand—because the requirements of national growth generate lateral pressure to expand their activities for a range of reasons from the need for raw materials and living space to the need for religious converts, military bases or adventurism—Schweller argues that emerging powers find it easier to join the league of great powers under multipolarity than under any other type of system. Significantly, China and India are rising, not in a relatively comfortable multipolar system but in a U.S.-led, basically unipolar, and potentionally transitional moment in history. Theoretically, what are the expected responses in such a situation? According to Schweller, state responses to rising powers resolve themselves into six basic policy options: preventive war, an option that appeals to states, which historically have been unlikely to accept their national decline peacefully; balancing/containment, or opposing the stronger or more threatening side in a conflict by allying with the weaker side; bandwagoning, or joining the stronger coalition; binding, a policy under which states do not form a counter-alliance against a threatening state because they fear greater conflict and even war, and choose to ally with the rival to manage the threat through an agreement of restraint; engagement, or the use of non-coercive means to blunt the non-status quo aspects of a rising power’s behaviour so that the growing power is employed in ways that are consistent with peaceful change; and buckpassing/distancing, when a state seeks to get a free ride on the balancing efforts of others or hide rather than meet the challenge from a rising, dissatisfied power by aligning itself with other threatened states. Schweller notes that states are not obliged to choose a single strategy but may combine several strategies.

In assessing the likelihood of which strategy or strategies states may choose, he asks the essential question of whether the rising power’s essential values can be protected and promoted within the status quo. Revisionist states with limited aims call for an engagement strategy. Meeting their legitimate demands through reasonable concessions converts disgruntled states into defenders of a new settlement that upholds the fundamental features of the existing order. Commending the engagement strategy, he argues that when the established power is confronted by a limited-aims revisionist state and seeks to end the rivalry with the challenger, “the appropriate strategy is neither purely cooperative nor purely competitive but instead a mixture of both carrots and sticks”. The established power tries to satisfy the rising power’s limited revisionist goals and to “modify its behavior through economic and political rewards as well as the threat of force”.

This realization is writ large in Singapore’s engagement of China as world capitals led by Washington try to bring Beijing into the international order. India is too recent an addition to the realm of emerging great powers to feature on the canvas of existing great powers’ strategies of engagement or containment, but what happens on the Chinese front of international relations may have intimations for India’s entry to the ranks of great powerhood.

Singapore’s economic ties with China and, increasingly, its trade and investment links with India, are well-documented. This study adopts a different approach. It seeks to place developments bringing Singapore, China and India closer within a geopolitical framework. Weaving history into contemporary international relations, it asks how well the city-state is positioning itself between the two ancient Asian powers as they reinvent themselves in the new millennium. It begins by looking at Singapore’s early relations with China and India.