Singaporean Perspective on Building Partner Capacity in Southwest Asia – An Interview

By Allison Hardwick

Background

Robert Haddick, author of Fire on the Water, states:

America’s ties with the (Asia-Pacific) region have delivered millions of jobs, higher standards of living, growing investments, and cultural interactions that have enriched all…But it seems to only now be dawning on some policymakers in Washington what the risks—and possible rewards—are that China’s rapid rise poses for US interests.

China’s rise challenges the Asia-Pacific’s balance of power, making it difficult for relatively smaller Pacific nations. Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and others compete for natural resources and in fiscal markets with their larger neighbors.

As an ally and partner, the US is the natural counterbalance to China’s regional economic and military power. In an interview with NPR, Chris Hill, former US Ambassador to Iraq and South Korea, laid out some of the challenges with regard to China: “We have a whole situation in the South China Sea where there a lot of countries that are absolutely dependent on maritime trade in the South China Sea and along comes the Chinese to exert a sovereign declaration, kind of like they own the place.” China also seems to prefer bilateral agreements, limiting third-party involvement and providing the Chinese with greater diplomatic and economic control. Additionally, China’s increasingly economic dominance in the region could prevent or limit US Pacific market access, gradually closing the door on US and Asia-Pacific trade relationships. Although President Trump has made it public that the US will nullify its involvement in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the US must find other geoeconomic avenues to maintain economic access to the enormous Pacific market, be it government sanctioned or private investment.

malacca-captionAs the new administration prioritizes it’s domestic and foreign policy agenda, the President must increase the US’ emphasis on Southeast Asia. 40% of the world’s trade is harbored in this region, making it a very lucrative area for foreign investment. In order to fully to participate in these markets, the US needs trusting partners like Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, and other regional friends. The US will have to build trust through partnerships in the Pacific by leveraging the human domain, and continuing its robust military commitments. Operations within the human domain might consist of diplomatic engagements by the Department of State, or multi-lateral military exercises, foreign military sales, and even mutual defense agreements. Balancing power in the Asia-Pacific region is not only about maintaining dominant military strength, but also about securing access to the economic markets through the application of a “whole-of-community” approach. In essence, American efforts must seek multi-national relationships at the human level.

Initiating conversations and gaining insight into International Officer Perspectives at US Defense Colleges is a great place to start. I interviewed Lt Col Ronald Tong (Republic of Singapore) this past January, International Officer Vice President at Air Command and Staff College, and asked a few candid questions, desiring to understand firsthand a perspective on security issues from a representative of a regional US ally and partner.

Interview

Over the Horizon (OTH): What is the largest threat to Singapore, concerning either physical or economic security?

Lt Col Ronald Tong (RT): “In my opinion, the largest threat to Singapore is terrorism. Our multi-ethnic society is an anathema to terrorist groups like ISIS and our high population density further increases our vulnerability to terrorism. There is also the ever-present threat of conventional conflict, due to ethnic diversity and potential territorial flashpoints in the region, which may foment conflict. China’s aggressive maneuvers in the East and South China Seas are also of a concern to Singapore. We do not know to what extent China will assert themselves using military and economic tools of power, and threaten the global commons. Singapore relies heavily on trade due to our lack of natural resources and small hinterland. Any restrictions to global shipping will thus have a significant impact to Singapore’s economic prosperity.”

OTH: How important is ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) to the region and its stability?

RT: Singapore was one of the first 5 nations to join ASEAN, which now has 10 nations as primary members. Its purpose is to bring together nations in the South-East Asian region, which have different ethnicities and backgrounds. It gives a diplomatic means to work on common issues and is considered more informal, and less legalistic, when compared to the western forms of multilateralism like NATO. It focuses mainly on economic issues and non-traditional security issues like human securities. The ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) does not approach security in the traditional sense. It is more cooperative and does not act as a security council. I do expect the nature of the forum to evolve depending on whether there is a common existential threat to ASEAN. Historically, member nations have instead discussed issues such as economic cooperation, Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief, Human Rights (charter), and China’s conduct in the SCS.

OTH: If the US steers away from the strong support of ASEAN, considering the unknowns of the new US Presidential administration, how will this affect its influence in the region?

RT: The US will lose access to and support from the ASEAN nations and take pressure off from China, because currently China feels encircled by US military presence around the first and second island chains. It would be difficult to predict what China may do without this restraint.”

OTH: With the US’s recent pull out from the Trans Pacific Partnership, what do you see as the most challenging aspect of the lack of US economic support to this agreement?

RT: “In the short term, it may seem effective to protect local American workers and their jobs, but in a classic case of protectionism – this will drive prices of commodities up and the consumers (which include these workers) will suffer. Overall, from an economic point of view, the reduction in trade will result in less economic prosperity for everyone, except small groups of people. This is also China’s opportunity to lead the TPP and replace the US’s role as a leader in globalization. Therefore, it will also impact the US’s international relations and could undermine US’s role as the leader of the free world.

Summary

Through the use of diplomatic and military instruments of power, American foreign policymakers must understand how to build partnership capacity that gains and maintains access to critical trade regions around the globe. These relationships, nurtured at the basic human level, will provide a pathway to allied support. The military can be a tool for the US government to strengthen diplomatic relationships and, therefore, increase international trust, eventually broadening access to economic growth. Understanding our partners through their lenses reinforces relationships at all levels – from Defense Colleges to national-level leadership – secures relations and affirms US military commitments. Leveraging a combination of all instruments of power is critical to the American national interest in the Asia-Pacific region.

Major Allison Hardwick is a C-130 and MQ-1 Senior Pilot with over 800 combat and combat support missions spanning Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and operations on the European and African continents. She is currently serving as the Deputy Head for the Department of Future Warfighting Concepts at the Air Command and Staff College, Maxwell AFB, AL.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

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