The Rise of China and India: Geo-Political Narratives from the Singapore Perspective
Wei, Lim Tai, China: An International Journal
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. One would also be hard-pressed to find narratives that consider China or India a direct and unequivocal threat to Singapore.
Many factors may account for this. The thoughts of the three individuals may offer some possible explanations for this. Given its internationalist (leading proponent of free economic exchanges) and cosmopolitan background, Singapore has always had a pragmatic policy that has worked with all major world powers since independence. In fact, far from being threatening, Mabhubani, for example, highlights the positive aspects of China's and India's rise to power, citing "China's modernisation has already reduced the number of Chinese living in absolute poverty from six hundred million to two hundred million" and "India's growth is also making an equally significant impact". (1)
In a celebratory mood, Mabhubani points out that fundamental to the UN's "actually meet[ing]one of its Millennium Development Goals of reducing global poverty by half by 2015 will be the success of China and India in reducing poverty significantly". (2) This leads to his argument that many Western observers and analysts, including those radically negative ones, fail to "see beyond the lack of a democratic political system" and "miss the massive democratisation of the human spirit that is taking place in China" as "hundreds of millions of Chinese who thought they were destined for endless poverty now believe that they can improve their lives through their own efforts". (3)
In terms of internal dynamics, most analyses of Singapore's foreign policy depend on concepts that shore up its natural vulnerabilities such as small state size, the need for survival and realpolitik pragmatism. Thus all regional and superpowers are not immediately treated as a threat but as a component of Singapore's quest to enhance global and regional interdependence. The emergence of China and India creates a regional superstructure from which Singapore can frame its response and hedge them against more established powers.
Within the region of Southeast Asia, Singapore has an internalised equilibrium in its relations with China and India. Singapore is not located on the peripheries of China (unlike the so-called Greater Chinese societies of Taiwan or Hong Kong, or the sinified outskirts of Vietnam) or India (unlike many Indo-Chinese states). It is located in the centre of maritime Southeast Asia where ethnic Chinese who form the majority of Singaporeans (three quarters) are a regional minority treated with caution by neighbouring dominant ethnicities. Thus, Singaporeans have treaded carefully, walking a fine line between ethnic identification with their ancestral past and sensitivities towards harmonious relations with indigenous ethnic groups in the region. In other words, mainstream Singapore, its leaders, media and society have been careful in being balanced and measured in their worldviews and conceptualisations of the positions of China, India and Southeast Asia in their lives.
One of Singapore's foreign policy pillars is its commitment to good relations with its neighbours and the resulting sensitivity to its immediate neighbours' own bilateral relations with China. (4) Regionally, Singapore is sensitive to its neighbours' suspicions of Singapore's Chinese-majority's affiliation with China.
Thus, Singapore made it a point to establish formal official diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China (3 October 1990) only after Indonesia had done so (8 August 1990). Singapore's sense of its own vulnerabilities imposed a form of self-restraint in its relations with China.
Michael Leifer (1933-2001)
The first discourse on Singapore-centric views of the rise of China and India studied here is the English school of balance of power school led by the highly-respected Michael Leifer, an academic cum practitioner in Southeast Asian politics and international relations. He lectured at Adelaide and Hull Universities, was a Pro-Director at the London School of Economics and served as Director of the Asia Research Centre there. He wrote regularly for the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. He ventured outside academia, personally involved in the creation of the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific (CSCAP), and his opinions were often sought after by policy-makers. He published more than 20 single-authored books and edited innumerable scholarly articles covering not only the field of Southeast Asian IR but also Southeast Asian domestic policies. (5)
Leifer held Singapore as a model of a small state utilising balance of power to overcome its geopolitical vulnerability. Singapore continues to try to find and employ "a variety of ways of compensating for …
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Publication information: Article title: The Rise of China and India: Geo-Political Narratives from the Singapore Perspective. Contributors: Wei, Lim Tai - Author. Journal title: China: An International Journal. Volume: 7. Issue: 1 Publication date: March 2009. Page number: 81+. © 2008 East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore. COPYRIGHT 2009 Gale Group.
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