The most important sense one can bring to the practice of foreign policy is that of balance. This lesson was instilled in me by Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew. Beginning in the early 1990s, Lee granted me a series of interviews, conducted at roughly three-year intervals. Each time we met, Lee would hone my perspective on international politics.

In particular, Lee’s “isosceles triangle” theory on relations among Japan, the United States and China deserves renewed appreciation today. Lee said: “Relations between Japan, the U.S. and China are most stable when they take the form of an isosceles triangle. This means maintaining a triangular configuration in which U.S.-Japan ties are closer than either Sino-Japanese relations or Sino-American relations.”

The traditional balance within the Asia-Pacific region is at the beginning of precipitous upheaval. This is keenly reflected in the delicate and tense relationship between Singapore and China. Several recent incidents demonstrate the changing nature of this relationship.

The first involves the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ approach to territorial issues in the South China Sea. At the September summit meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in Venezuela, the ASEAN delegation sought to include an update on recent conditions in the South China Sea in the summit’s closing declaration. In a letter to the Venezuelan foreign minister, the ASEAN delegation leader expressed “deep regret” that Venezuela, the incumbent NAM chairman, had prevented the ASEAN delegation from updating the document.

In response, China’s Global Times singled out Singapore for criticism, reporting on Sept. 27 that “Singapore had … insisted on adding contents which endorsed Philippines’ South China Sea arbitration case and attempted to strengthen the contents on the South China Sea in the document,” and “openly challenging the ruling of Venezuela as the host nation.”

A second incident followed joint military exercises conducted by Taiwan and Singapore in November. A shipment of nine Singaporean military vehicles returning to Singapore following the conclusion of the joint exercises was seized by Hong Kong customs officials during a stopover mooring in Hong Kong. In its Nov. 27 edition, the Global Times harshly condemned the joint military exercises as an example of “Singapore’s hypocrisy,” noting that: “For quite some time, Singapore has been pretending to seek a balance between China and the U.S., yet has been taking Washington’s side in reality.”

Amid these developments, Tommy Koh, Singapore’s former ambassador to the United Nations and the U.S., published his analysis of China’s “four areas of misunderstanding” regarding Singapore in the Straits Times on Oct. 21.

1. “(The Chinese) feel that since Singaporeans are fellow Chinese, we should have a better understanding of China’s policies than the other ASEAN countries. They also expect Singapore to support China’s policies. I believe that this is one source of misunderstanding between us. China has to understand that Singapore is a multiracial and not a Chinese nation. Further, as a sovereign and independent country, Singapore’s interests are not always similar to those of China.”

2. “Another possible source of misunderstanding between Singapore and China is Singapore’s commitment to ASEAN. … Any attempt to undermine ASEAN unity would be regarded by Singapore as a threat to its national interest. … Singapore would like ASEAN to be united and to be able to speak with one voice on any important question, including the South China Sea.”

3. “Singapore’s foreign policy is to pursue an independent course and not to be allied to any major power. It is Singapore’s ambition to be close to each of the major powers, including the United States, China, India, Japan and Europe. … Some of my friends in China are not happy with the warm relations which Singapore enjoys with Washington. They have mistakenly accused Singapore of being a U.S. ally and of siding with the U.S. against China. … Singapore is not a U.S. ally. If Singapore were a U.S. ally, we could not have broken ranks with the U.S. and be among the first to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. … Singapore is today China’s largest foreign investor.”

4. “China is a big country and has the world view of a big country. Singapore is a small country and has the world view of a small country. … Singapore, like other small countries, wants to live in a world which is governed by laws, rules and principles and not by might or by force. We therefore support a rules-based world order and the multilateral institutions which uphold it. … In the case of the South China Sea, we would like all states to act in accordance with the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.”

Koh is a scholar of maritime law, and one of the Asia-Pacific region’s most respected diplomats. In 1990, Koh led the Singapore delegation in negotiations with China for the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Koh’s appeal sounds to me like the “cri de coeur” of a small nation.

Despite Koh’s diplomatically worded description of China’s “misunderstandings,” these are most likely China’s true feelings toward Singapore. The most dangerous of these various “misunderstandings” is China’s efforts to force countries to choose between Beijing and Washington, and its denunciation of governments that refuse to do so as “hypocrites.” This intense pressure destroys the space in which such countries might otherwise succeed in maintaining a balanced approach to China’s leadership.

This offers a cautionary lesson for Japan. Japan must not mimic China’s attempts to test the loyalties of ASEAN members, dividing them into “pro-China” and “pro-Japan” factions. Diversity is an essential ideal for Asia in the 21st century, and Japan must prioritize achieving a regional integration that protects this diversity. By refusing to compete with China, Japan can both differentiate its foreign policy and also make it more appealing.

The Japan-U.S. security alliance will of course remain indispensable to regional stability. However, it is not the case that the alliance can provide solutions to all of the issues facing the Asia-Pacific region. Japan must improve its own sense of balance. To start, we should listen carefully to Singapore’s cri de coeur.

Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation and former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his column in the monthly Bungei Shunju.

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