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Agents of influence in the little red dot

Image credit: Ruiwen Chua (Flickr: Creative Commons)

Since the beginning of August, the balconies of Singapore’s endless apartment blocks have been littered with the young city-state’s iconic red and white flag. Singapore’s 52nd National Day was celebrated on 9 August 2017, with the day’s celebrations including a military parade, symbolically reinforcing the republic’s sovereignty and military prowess amongst its Southeast Asian neighbours. In an almost prelude to this grand show was an equally symbolic gesture by the government of Singapore—the cancellation of a prominent Singaporean academic Huang Jing’s permanent residency.

Huang, born in China and a citizen of the US, was a professor of US-China relations at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs stated that Huang ‘knowingly interacted with intelligence organisations’ with the aim of influencing Singapore’s foreign policy. Huang, known for his pro-Beijing stance, allegedly used his position to ‘deliberately and covertly advance the agenda of a foreign country at Singapore’s expense’.

Although no particular foreign intelligence service was specified, Singaporean media has been quick to draw parallels with the activities of Chinese intelligence services in Australia. In response to the ‘agents of influence’ saga, Beijing stated that it had no knowledge of the case. Whilst no country can be attributed to Huang’s case, it does beg an examination of Sino-Singaporean relations and why China might seek to influence Singaporean foreign policy in a nation where nearly three quarters of the population is ethnic Chinese.

Singapore’s diplomatic relations with China, formally established in 1990, have been a fine balancing act between not being seen as too “Chinese” to the West, and not too “pro-American” to China. A testament to this is Singapore deliberately becoming the last of the five founding ASEAN nations to establish diplomatic relations with China as to avoid any misinterpretations of being the ‘Third China’. Both China and Singapore have mutually strong economic interests, with China being Singapore’s largest trading partner. Conversely, Singapore is China’s largest foreign investor.

Despite this relatively stable relationship, three key facets of Singaporean foreign policy continue to be a thorn in China’s side—namely Singapore’s strategic relationship with the US, its approach to the South China Sea dispute, and its ongoing defence cooperation with Taiwan. And therein lies the key drivers of ‘agents of influence’ in the little red dot.

The US has been viewed as Singapore’s unofficial security guarantor in the region. Relations between the city-state and the US date back to the 1960s which saw Singaporean support for the US war effort in Vietnam. Since Singapore’s first bilateral defence Memorandum of Understanding with the US in 1990, its defence and security alignment with the US has grown stronger. Today, Singapore presents itself as being geographically invaluable to the US in the context of its ‘pivot to Asia’. Most recently, an enhanced cooperation agreement signed in 2015 would see up to four US Navy Littoral Combat Ships operating from Singapore by 2018. Furthermore, the US has previously deployed maritime surveillance aircraft to the island. This perceived ‘regional militarisation’ by China is undoubtedly exacerbated by Singapore’s support for last year’s verdict by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which invalidated China’s claims.

Singapore’s long-standing relations with another claimant in the South China Sea—Taiwan—has surprisingly only manifested itself as an issue in the past year or so. Singaporean troops have been conducting military exercises in Taiwan since 1975—a reflection of Singapore’s geographic limits in the context of military exercises. The issue reared its head in mid-November last year when China lodged a diplomatic complaint with Singapore when a shipment of nine Singaporean armoured vehicles were seized in Hong Kong by customs officials. The vehicles were in transit from Taiwan to Singapore following joint military exercises between the two nations. The seizure was suspected as being driven by the Chinese government, with China ‘firmly opposing any forms of official interaction’ with Taiwan.

Given the mutual Sino-Singaporean economic stakes and the presence of an ethnic Chinese majority in Singapore, it’s no surprise that China wishes to push Singapore into the warm embrace of a rising China. However, Singapore’s position as a powerful economic hub, its approach of formal non-alignment and its broad array of defence partnerships make it less susceptible to China’s will. For now, Sino-Singaporean relations appear to have rebalanced following the Hong Kong customs saga, with two high-level meetings being held this year—reaffirming the ‘good and warm’ relations between the two nations. In spite of this, China has demonstrated its ability to flex its diplomatic muscle in order to apply pressure on Singapore when it so chooses. Huang, whether an ‘agent of influence’ for Chinese intelligence services or otherwise, is but a subtle casualty in Singapore’s on-going balancing act with China on the world stage.

Patrick Dupont is the Indo-Pacific Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.

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