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What the Biden-Xi meeting means for Singapore

By       (Page 1 of 1 pages)   1 comment
Follow Me on Twitter     Message Mark Lansvin

U.S. President Joe Biden's meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Bali, Indonesia, on Monday has far-reaching ramifications for the region as the two leaders discuss topics ranging from trade and cooperation to security issues such as Taiwan, Iran, North Korea, and Russia. The two leaders agreed to sit down together just ahead of the G-20 summit. But it is the trade and economy discussions that may have the most impact for countries like Singapore, Thailand, Japan, and the Philippines.

Citizens of these and other countries in the region are asking what their governments are doing to mitigate the rising cost of food, healthcare, energy, and real estate. The cost of living is rising sharply, but wages have remained stagnant. Singapore is a high-income country, but housing is still out of reach for many citizens. According to the government, "The supply chain disruptions caused by the war in Ukraine and the COVID-19 pandemic are some of the main reasons why Singaporeans and people all around the world are feeling the squeeze."

Singapore's position as part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries is unique. It has a special relationship with China and in recent years, Singapore has had to tread carefully on the diplomatic level to avoid taking sides in the US-China tensions. But this cannot last forever and Singapore must take sides. While many nations want to see a weakened China and a stronger US, this is not the case in Singapore, with most people leaning toward a stronger China. Dismissed by some detractors for its size, Singapore boasts a strategic location in the region, an impressively high GDP, and a demonstrated ability to work with China.

Singapore's stronger affinity toward China likely has a lot to do with the perception that China can deliver and the US cannot. Singapore's citizens are struggling with a slow economy that is reacting to world events such as Russia's war in Ukraine and COVID - both of which have caused global supply-chain issues and higher prices on everything from food to energy. While the US and ASEAN countries call for stronger engagement in the region, Singapore stands out for its belief that China is stronger, more driven and focused, and can introduce positive changes that will benefit regional nations, whether through its Belt-Road Initiative or production.

But Singapore stands alone. Speaking at the 12th ASEAN-UN Summit in Cambodia, which ended on Sunday, Secretary-General Antà nio Guterres noted how many ASEAN countries have been "battered" by COVID and the climate crisis - restricting access to food, energy, and finance - and global insecurity triggering new conflicts. Guterres said that the crisis in accessing food, energy and finance will be his top priority at next week's G20 summit in Bali.

At the ASEAN summit, Biden announced that he and the ASEAN leaders will elevate US-ASEAN relations to a Comprehensive Strategic Partnership (CSP). Biden also announced he will attend the annual East Asia Summit, further demonstrating the United States' prioritization of the Indo-Pacific and the ASEAN-led regional architecture, according to a White House statement.

The White House said Biden "will also announce several new initiatives designed to support the four pillars of the ASEAN Outlook: maritime cooperation, connectivity, the UN sustainable development goals, and economic cooperation."

Back in Bali, a lot rests on the shoulders of the two leaders as the rest of the region watches carefully. US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters traveling on Air Force One to Bali that the White House hopes the leaders "come out of that meeting with a better understanding and a way to responsibly manage this relationship and the competition."

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has warned of the dangers of a US-China confrontation and has called to "avoid being caught up in the major power rivalry." In addition, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam are all involved in numerous disputes with China. Singapore has made it clear that it is not a claimant in any of the South China Sea disputes and has offered to be a conduit for negotiations. But this does not mean the city-state has not gotten in trouble with Beijing, as Singapore has also voiced hope that China would abide by international law. Beijing wants Singapore to exert its influence within the ASEAN to prevent the internalization of the conflict. Thus, the China-Singapore relationship is important and neither side wants issues with the US or ASEAN countries to get in the way of what both nations see as a fruitful partnership.

For this reason, Singapore has high stakes in the Biden-Xi meet. It wants to avoid a conflagration or rising tension between the two nations since it does not want to be forced to publicly choose a side. It also wants to see a stronger US in the region to manage the conflicts China has with ASEAN countries. At the same time, as a global hub for air and sea traffic, Singapore wants to see a continued, strong China in the region as it believes it can directly influence changes on the ground and improve the economy, fix supply-chain issues, provide support, and ultimately, ensure a return to economic stability in the region.

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Mr. Lansvin is a strategic advisor on a range of issues for various NGOs and governments around the globe.

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