The Rise of China and India: Geo-Political Narratives from the Singapore Perspective

Article excerpt

Theoretical frameworks have often defined the debates in the field of international relations (IR). Two major IR theories are realism and idealism. Realism is associated with the exercise of power by states and places overwhelming premium on the concept of power which is a measure of the influence of a state. Idealism emphasises the workings of international laws and regimes, morality as well as international institutions as factors of constraint on the exercise of raw power.

Singapore does not fit into these two major frameworks perfectly. If the influence of a state is proportional to power, then Singapore has far more influence than its size permits. This is reflected by many prominent examples, among which is the role of Singapore diplomacy in chairing the United Nations (UN) Committee on the Law of the Sea by one of the persons studied in this article.

Singapore also does not fit into idealism, given its well-known status for realist decisions, working with China against the Vietnamese during the Cold War in the 1970s after establishing a fierce anti-Communist reputation, using an Indian business initiative--the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII)'s Partnership Summit in 2007--to push for India-Pakistani rapprochement over Kashmir placing fairness and equity over the overwhelmingly pro-business agenda, and warning the Western media against excessively stigmatising China over the Olympic-relay pro-Tibet protests in full view of the Western media at a conference organised by the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Against this paradoxical backdrop, what then are the discourses that dominate Singaporean diplomacy and management of IR, and of particular interest in this article, how does Singapore deal with the emergence of China and India? Narratives emanating from Singapore on the rise of China and India tend to emphasise the economic emergence of the two giant economies. Like many other Asia-Pacific countries and, indeed the world, business and commercial analyses of Chinese and Indian economic trends have spawned a massive industry of consulting, news/information, publishing and speaking circuits. But what about geopolitical narratives in IR, do they also reflect the same levels of optimism, pragmatism, problems and criticisms that economic analyses face? This article looks at the selected thoughts and individual perceptions of three thinkers who have left their diplomatic/academic footprints on the subject.

Inherent and implicit in any discussion on perspectives, the locality of the analyst or thinker itself becomes a subject of discussion. Singapore-centric perspectives on this subject are not restricted by nationality or citizenship, and the three individuals have been chosen based on their Singapore-centric perspectives with their backgrounds straddling diplomacy and academia. Three popular discourses can be referenced when it comes to strategic thinking about the rise of China and India--those of Michael Leifer, Kishore Mabhubani and Tommy Koh. This selection of thinkers does not pretend to be comprehensive or comprehensively representative. Rather, they are a selection based on contributions circulated within the academic and diplomatic circles and by the popular media, generating and contributing to mainstream interest and narratives in Singapore.

Outside popular consumption of the discourses, Koh and Mabhubani continue to be influential with the diplomatic community in Singapore. On 10 March 2008, at the inaugural S. Rajaratnam Lecture of Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) Diplomatic Academy, delivered by President S.R. Nathan of the Republic of Singapore, Koh and Mabhubani were singled out for special mention as two, among a small group of pioneering diplomats, who now serve as associated members of the academy passing on their knowledge to junior officers.

One observation that can be made is that there seem to be very few Singapore-centric narratives that are extremely pessimistically critical of the rise of China and India that are comparable to the likes of Gordon Chang's The Coming Collapse of China in the US, or right wing Taiwanese-Japanese Ko Bunyu's highly-racialised An Introduction to China. …