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Singapore and Goliath?

Since the time of Lee Kuan Yew (1923–2015), Singapore’s leaders have refused to infer, merely from the country’s size and composition, a need to appease the People’s Republic of China (PRC). They have remained averse to the notion that little countries should kowtow to big ones, and they firmly reject the idea that their country is somehow racially embedded in a “greater China” whose roads all lead to Beijing. In recent years, however, the PRC has sought to assert what it views as its natural primacy in the region through a range of tactics that have involved not only traditional “hard” power, but also “soft,” “sharp,” and “sticky” power.

Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi was angry. It was 23 July 2010. He had gathered in Hanoi with counterparts for the annual meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum. The other ministers had been taking turns expressing concern over China’s multiply contested claim to sovereignty over nearly all of “Southeast Asia’s Mediterranean”—the South China Sea. Yang left the room for an hour, perhaps to seek guidance from Beijing. He returned to defend China and berate its critics. In the course of his long and rambling remarks, Yang stared straight at Singapore’s Foreign Minister George Yeo and said, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.”1 Why Singapore? Geography seemed to matter, and history as well. The smallest in land area of ASEAN’s ten member states, the Lion City had been the second-to-last to establish (in 1990) diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Demography and descent may also have figured in Yang’s pique: not just the factual 1.4-billion-to-5.6-million difference between China’s and Singapore’s populations, but the fact that an estimated three-quarters of the latter are ethnically Chinese. Yang would have known that the city-state’s founding ruler Lee Kuan Yew (1923–2015) had steadfastly refused to infer, merely from his country’s size and composition, a need to appease the PRC. Lee’s successors, including his son Lee Hsien Loong (b. 1952), the current premier, have remained averse to the notion that little countries should kowtow to big ones. Singapore’s leaders firmly reject the idea that their country is somehow racially embedded in a “greater China” whose roads all lead to Beijing.

What kind of Chinese power did Yang’s outburst represent? His comment [End Page 76] was not an example of admirably empathic “soft power” at work. Yet neither did it appear to be an exercise in “sharp” power (a manipulative interference), let alone “hard” power (a threat of war).

If the imbalance in size was “just a fact,” it followed that Singapore—and by implication Southeast Asia’s other countries, all of them smaller than China—should adapt to that reality by acknowledging the unavoidable: China’s permanent primacy in the region. Yang’s highlighting of the size difference calls to mind Walter Russell Mead’s 2009 critique of the encompassing structural influence of U.S. economic might, which he labeled “sticky” power—a power that is not like traditional “hard” (military) power but is ultimately “adhesive” (not easily escaped), rather than freely attractive in the way that “soft” power is supposed to be.2 Yang was reminding Singapore’s foreign minister and his regional colleagues that their governments had no choice but to acknowledge that China would always be huge and nearby—and to fashion their policies accordingly, including acquiescing to Beijing’s clout in maritime Southeast Asia.

Six years after Yang’s candid outburst, on 12 July 2016, an international court convened under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea disallowed an important rationale for China’s claim to sovereignty over the South China Sea. Beijing called the ruling “null and void” and denounced the court as illegitimate.3 In contrast, Singapore ventured a cautious but implicitly critical statement urging “all parties” to the dispute, China therefore included, “to fully respect legal and diplomatic processes,” presumably including the legal process that had just produced the court’s decision against Beijing.4

Two months later, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) held a summit meeting in Venezuela. Global Times, a newspaper owned by the Chinese Communist Party and published in Beijing, ran a story headlined “NAM Summit Closes, Singapore Brings Up South China Sea Despite Opposition.” Citing unnamed sources, the paper charged Singapore’s NAM delegation with having tried to insert an endorsement of the July court ruling into the meeting’s final document. Global Times further claimed that Singapore’s delegate had “made sarcastic remarks,” “used offensive words,” and “launched malicious attacks” during debate on the matter.5

Possibly to China’s surprise, Singapore’s ambassador in Beijing, Stanley Loh, wrote back to Global Times calling its charges “false,” “unfounded,” and “irresponsible.”6 It had been a NAM summit custom since 1992, said Loh, for each regional group of member states to write the portion of the final document touching its own region. Thus the ASEAN governments had together drafted a paragraph on the South China Sea for the section on Southeast Asia. A few NAM members from outside Southeast Asia had objected to ASEAN’s text, however, and Venezuela (which, as host, was chairing the meeting) had refused to use it. In his letter, Loh included the rejected paragraph along with ASEAN’s request to the Venezuelan [End Page 77] foreign minister to append the passage to the final document. Loh asked Global Times to publish the paragraph and the request.

Instead, Loh was rebuked. “Singapore,” the paper’s editor wrote, “should feel ashamed when you tried to trip up China, your largest trading partner.” Again, the “small country” was being reminded of China’s heft—in this case economic—and of Beijing’s ability to wield it against an upstart. As if for good measure, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman went on the record to blame an “individual nation”—clearly Singapore—for making trouble by trying to push South China Sea issues into the NAM summit’s final document.

One of China’s exports that does not show up in trade statistics is the self-censorship that some countries may practice for fear of jeopardizing their relations with Beijing. The controversial South China Sea paragraph had breached this implicit bargain—assistance for silence—by expressing “serious concerns” about “the increased presence of military assets” in that body of water and stressing “the importance of non-militarisation and self-restraint in the conduct of all activities, including land reclamation.”7

More than half (53 percent) of the value of all Chinese loans to Latin America from 2007 to 2015 went to Venezuela. This was triple what the second-largest borrower (Brazil) took in.8 Caracas has since staggered toward default, bolstering Beijing’s political leverage. It is highly probable that Venezuela’s decision to discard ASEAN’s South China Sea text was done either in “anticipatory obedience”9 to China or in response to direct or indirect Chinese intervention. What happened was very likely an exercise of targeted, intrusively sharp power, reinforced by the sticky power flowing from Venezuela’s debtor status, in the context of Chinese hard power in the South China Sea.10

Hardly had the NAM contretemps died down when a new one erupted. On 23 November 2016, a commercial container ship stopped in Hong Kong en route from Taiwan to Singapore. Aboard were nine empty troop-carrying vehicles, armored but unarmed. They belonged to Singapore’s army, which had been using them in training exercises on Taiwan. Hong Kong customs officials seized the vehicles, apparently at Beijing’s behest, Hong Kong being a Special Administrative Region of China. Angered by this reminder of Singapore’s longstanding if limited military cooperation with Taiwan, Beijing demanded that the city-state respect the one-China principle. Global Times went further, calling Singapore “a small country” that needed to “know its boundaries.”11

Periodically Singapore’s army, lacking sufficient home terrain, holds [End Page 78] readiness exercises on Taiwan. China disapproves of these, but has not tried to stop them. Singapore’s soldiers have also trained in places such as Alaska, Australia, California, Hawaii, India, Malaysia, and Thailand.12 The diversity of these sites, Taiwan included, attests to the dexterity of Singapore’s defense diplomacy and its willingness to keep on doing something China dislikes.

Soon after the vehicles were impounded, China’s Foreign Ministry scolded Singapore with a formal demand that it “strictly abide by the one-China principle” and abstain from “any form of official contacts with Taiwan, including military exchanges and cooperation.” Australian analyst Euan Graham construed Beijing’s warning as “killing two birds with one stone”—rebuking Singapore for its independent position on the South China Sea while reinforcing China’s quarantine diplomacy against Taiwan’s autonomy-minded president Tsai Ing-wen.13 The vehicles finally arrived back in Singapore on 30 January 2017, after Hong Kong customs officials had spent two months investigating whether any of their laws had been broken.

Clearly hard power played a role in this story, which involved military exercises and associated gear. China’s limited and indirect intervention, however, employed sharp power. While selectively targeting Singapore (and Taiwan) via Hong Kong, Beijing kept its impressive capacity to wage all-out war offstage. The vehicles were released and no one was hurt, leaving debatable the extent to which China’s use of sharp power was meant to connote, as a warning, its power to project the more lethal kind.

Two Departures, Many Questions

On 1 July 2017, yet another storm broke. The Straits Times, Singapore’s premier English-language newspaper, ran a column by the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) at the National University of Singapore, formerly Singapore’s ambassador to the UN, Kishore Mahbubani. He contended that, instead of implicitly calling on China to “fully respect” the 2016 court ruling against Beijing on the South China Sea, Singapore should have been “more circumspect”—more sensitive to Chinese feelings. “Small states,” he wrote, “must always behave like small states.” This was “an eternal rule of geopolitics.” On matters involving “great powers,” Singapore needed to “exercise discretion” and be “very restrained.”

Did Mahbubani want his country to be restrained not only toward China but also toward the West? Hardly. In closing, he warned his fellow citizens to “be careful of the intellectual poison you are ingesting daily into your brains through the Anglo-Saxon media.”

The backlash was immediate. On Facebook one of Singapore’s ambassadors-at-large, Bilahari Kausikan, labeled as “muddled, mendacious [End Page 79] and indeed dangerous” Mahbubani’s conviction that Singapore, being small, should act small as well. Singapore had not survived and prospered “by being anybody’s tame poodle.” Of course, wrote Kausikan, Singaporeans “recognize asymmetries of size and power—we are not stupid—but that does not mean we must grovel or accept subordination” to others as normal. Kausikan cited and criticized Yang Jiechi’s small-countries-should-act-small admonition in 2010: If Yang had delivered his barb while staring at George Yeo, at least Yeo had stared right back. Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew had “stood up to China when he had to.” “The Chinese respected him.” No one “respects a running dog.” “What kind of people does Kishore think we are?”14

A month later, on 4 August 2017, the Lee Kuan Yew School was back in the news. The Home Affairs Ministry announced that it had canceled the permanent-resident status of the LKYSPP’s Lee Foundation Professor on U.S.-China Relations, Huang Jing, a U.S. citizen born and raised in China. The announcement accused Huang of acting as a knowing “agent of influence” for a “foreign country.” The Home Ministry alleged that he had transmitted “supposedly ‘privileged information’” to a “senior member of the LKYSPP” with the idea that this “senior member” would pass it on to “very senior public officials” for the purpose of changing Singapore’s foreign policy.15 The foreign country, the school’s senior member, and the public officials were all left unnamed.

Owing to this “subversion,” said the Home Ministry, Huang would be expelled and “permanently banned from re-entering Singapore.” Huang denied the charge as “nonsense,” but his appeal was rejected and he departed on 8 September 2017.16 Two months later, the university announced that Mahbubani would begin a nine-month sabbatical on 1 January 2018 before retiring permanently in 2019.17

What had actually—factually—happened? Had Huang really been acting on behalf of a “foreign country” as its “agent of influence”? Was China that country? Was Mahbubani the unnamed “senior member” of the Lee Kuan Yew School? These questions are political and personal. Given their incendiary nature and the need to respect privacy and fairness in the absence of certainty, it is vital to avoid unwarranted and possibly hurtful conclusions. There is nevertheless a clear consensus among knowledgeable Singaporeans that the “foreign country” the ministry had in mind was indeed the PRC.18 In keeping with that conclusion, Global Times criticized the ministry’s decision.19

It is possible that degrees and varieties of all four kinds of power were involved in this affair. Even assuming that Mahbubani, being the LKY School’s dean, was the “senior member” in question, he and Huang could have been acting sincerely and independently, unconnected to and unprompted by Beijing. They might simply have found China attractive, and wanted Singapore to benefit by accommodating the PRC. That attraction would imply Chinese soft power. Had Beijing been using [End Page 80] sticky power instead, it might have tried to manipulate Singaporean opinion, make China’s dominance seem inevitable, and provide compromising incentives for Singaporeans to acquiesce in that necessity. Alternatively, Beijing could have opted for sharp power over the sticky kind, by relying not on patient situational shaping but on direct pressure through clandestine intervention—or combined cooptation with intrusion in composite efforts that were partly sticky, partly sharp.

The least unlikely explanation for what happened to Huang, and perhaps also Mahbubani, is that Singapore’s leaders acted to discourage domestic advocates of closer ties with Beijing from tilting too far in that direction—too far from the city-state’s prior record of autonomy and resilience. Chinese hard power had no manifest part in the affair. Beijing’s earlier roles as Singapore’s reminder (Hanoi), opposer (Venezuela), and detainer (Hong Kong), however, were all plausibly backstopped by the threatening extent and lethality of Chinese military strength, including in the South China Sea.

Disaggregating China’s power into soft, sticky, sharp, and hard varieties can be helpful analytically and in fashioning appropriate policy responses, despite the opacity and complexity of the cases discussed above. The cases also highlight, however, the concomitant need to acknowledge the variations, gradations, and mixtures of interests, actions, and intentions in China’s repertoire of influence—in Singapore, Southeast Asia, and around the world.

Donald K. Emmerson

Donald K. Emmerson heads the Southeast Asia Program at Stanford University. His latest publications include “Mapping ASEAN’s Futures” in Contemporary Southeast Asia (August 2017) and a chapter in The South China Sea Disputes (edited by Yang Razali Kassim, 2017).


1. John Pomfret, “U.S. Takes a Tougher Tone with China,” Washington Post, 30 July 2010, www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/07/29/AR2010072906416.html.

2. Walter Russell Mead, “America’s Sticky Power,” Foreign Policy, 29 October 2009, http://foreignpolicy.com/2009/10/29/americas-sticky-power. On all four types of power, see Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power (New York: Basic Books, 1990); Nye, “How Sharp Power Threatens Soft Power,” Foreign Affairs, 24 January 2018, www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2018-01-24/how-sharp-power-threatens-soft-power; and Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig, eds., Sharp Power: Rising Authoritarian Influence (Washington, D.C.: National Endowment for Democracy, December 2017).

3. “Statement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China on the Award of 12 July 2016 of the Arbitral Tribunal in the South China Sea Arbitration Established at the Request of the Republic of the Philippines,” Beijing, 12 July 2016, www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/t1379492.shtml.

4. “Singapore Urges Respect for Court Ruling on South China Sea,” Today Online, 12 July 2016, www.todayonline.com/singapore/singapore-south-china-sea-ruling-reaction.

5. Ching Koh Ping, “Singapore Envoy Refutes China Global Times Report on South China Sea,” 27 September 2016, Straits Times (Singapore), http://ifonlysingaporeans.blogspot.com/2016/09/singapore-envoy-refutes-china-report-on.html; Viola Zhou, “Blow-by-Blow Account of the China-Singapore Spat over Global Times’ South China Sea Report,” South China Morning Post (Hong Kong), 17 October 2016, www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2023364/blow-blow-account-china-singapore-spat-over-global. [End Page 81]

6. “Full Text of Ambassador Stanley Loh’s Letter to Global Times Editor-In-Chief Hu Xijin, in Response to an Article by Global Times (Chinese) Dated 21 September 2016,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Singapore, 26 September 2016, www.mfa.gov.sg/content/mfa/overseasmission/beijing/consular_services/consular_updates/2016/201609/global_times.html.

7. Zhou, “Blow-by-Blow.”

8. David Dollar, China’s Investment in Latin America (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, January 2017), 7, www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/fp_201701_china_investment_lat_am.pdf.

9. Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (New York: Tim Duggan, 2017), 17–21.

10. See, for example, “A Constructive Year for Chinese Base Building,” Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, 14 December 2017, https://amti.csis.org/constructive-year-chinese-building.

11. Ai Jun, “Singapore’s Hypocrisy Exposed by Seized Military Vehicles,” Global Times (Beijing), 27 November 2016, www.globaltimes.cn/content/1020583.shtml.

12. Marco Hernandez, Adolfo Arranz, and Marcelo Duhalde, “Inside the Terrex Military Vehicle,” South China Morning Post, 7 July 2017, www.scmp.com/infographics/article/2050764/long-stopover.

13. Nectar Gan and Liu Zhen, “Beijing Demands Singapore Abide by ‘One-China’ Principle After Military Vehicles Seized in Hong Kong,” South China Morning Post, 28 November 2016, updated on 29 November 2016, www.scmp.com/print/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2049769/beijing-demands-singapore-abide-one-china-principle.

14. For Kausikan’s post and other responses to Mahbubani, see Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh and Chew Hui Min, “Minister Shanmugam, Diplomats Bilahari and Ong Keng Yong Say Prof. Mahbubani’s View on Singapore’s Foreign Policy ‘Flawed,’” Straits Times, 3 July 2017, www.straitstimes.com/singapore/prof-kishore-mahbubanis-view-on-singapores-foreign-policy-deeply-flawed-ambassador-at.

15. “In Full: MHA’s Statement on Revoking PR Status of Academic Huang Jing and Wife,” Today Online, 4 August 2017, www.todayonline.com/singapore/ministry-home-affairs-full-statement-huang-jing.

16. Cynthia Choo, “‘Agent of Influence’ Huang Jin and Wife Depart Singapore for U.S.,” Today Online, 8 September 2017, www.todayonline.com/singapore/agent-influence-huang-jing-and-wife-have-left-singapore-mha.

17. Toh Ee Ming, “Kishore Mahbubani to Step Down as Dean of Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy,” Today Online, 6 November 2017, www.todayonline.com/singapore/kishore-mahbubani-step-down-dean-lee-kuan-yew-school-public-policy.

18. The consensus is noted in Zuraidah Ibrahim, “What Singapore Is Saying by Expelling China Hand Huang Jing,” South China Morning Post, 12 August 2017, updated on 15 August 2017, www.scmp.com/week-asia/opinion/article/2106497/what-singapore-saying-expelling-china-hand-huang-jing.

19. Deng Xiaoci, “Singapore Strips Chinese-American Academic of His Permanent Residency, Experts Call It ‘Rare and Odd,’” Global Times, 6 August 2017, www.global-times.cn/content/1059925.shtml. [End Page 82]