Executive Director Stephen Jacobi read out on the recent Delhi business mission, published earlier by Newsroom.

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by | Jun 6, 2023 | Featured Articles, Trade Working Blog


In another post from Singapore, Stephen Jacobi addresses questions of regional security.

Since even before its founding in 1965, Singapore has been located strategically at the cross-roads of economic activity in the Asia Pacific region. Today, Singapore also finds itself at the centre of geo-political conflict in the region. Singapore’s leaders are worried. Prime Minister Lee has referred to the “grievous consequences”[1] of conflict between the US and China. Singapore‘s response to this increasingly uncertain situation is indicative:  Deputy Prime Minister (and Prime Minister-apparent) Lawrence Wong said in Tokyo recently that Singapore looks to multilateralism to strengthen its position in an increasingly uncertain world[2]

Dangerous times

Singapore has just hosted the annual Shangri-la Dialogue, a gathering of international Defence Ministers and security experts, including New Zealand’s own Minister of Defence Andrew Little.  Most eyes at the meeting were focused on the deteriorating stand-off between the US and China, particularly in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin and the Chinese Minister General Li Shangfu were present at the Dialogue: they even shook hands but disappointingly did not meet.  While the US was willing,  it is not altogether surprising the Chinese refused since General Li has been under US sanctions since 2018 (before becoming Minister).  Diplomatic dialogue aimed at building trust and confidence is not likely to be the most fruitful in such circumstances.  Reflecting on the current situation Minister Little said “it is not enough to cross our fingers and hope for the best. Rational analysis and cool heads are required in the present circumstances”[3].

So what’s a small, open economy to do?

In his earlier speech in Tokyo DPM Wong had referred to “multiple storms” which are affecting the region – “geopolitical tensions and great power rivalry gathering force, protectionism undermining the multi-lateral trading system, as well as the longer-term threat of global warming”.  He struck a similar tone at the Shangri La Dialogue, saying that the members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) were not without agency in the current situation – “no country in ASEAN wants to be forced to take sides, or be in a position where it has to either contain China’s rise or limit the United States’ presence”[4].

DPM Wong says that “the ASEAN way to uphold peace and stability in our region” is to  engage with all the major powers, (avoiding) exclusive commitments with any single party”.  He describes this approach as “not so much passive non-alignment, but more about active multi-engagement”. 

DPM Wong says that “the ASEAN way to uphold peace and stability in our region” is to  engage with all the major powers, (avoiding) exclusive commitments with any single party”.  He describes this approach as “not so much passive non-alignment, but more about active multi-engagement”. 

Minister Little said something similar: “we retain our focus on strengthening multilateral and regional institutions and their role in promoting the safety and prosperity of everyone”.  One of those institutions is the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) with Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and the UK which, while not a treaty or alliance, has operated successfully to build defence co-operation between the parties since 1971.  Importantly, these arrangements are not targeted at any one country from within or outside the region.

What about AUKUS and “ASEAN centrality”?

In New Zealand recently there has been much discussion about whether or not New Zealand might, if invited, join the non-nuclear component or “second pillar” of the Australia- United Kingdom – United States  (AUKUS) Security Alliance.  Minister Little has said no invitation has yet been forthcoming and no decisions have been taken. Very little detail is available about what the second pillar might entail, beyond the possibility of the sharing of non-nuclear technology.  Several security academics have talked positively of this seeing the opportunity to maintain interoperability with Australia as our only formal ally as well as well as other partners (US, UK) with whom we are closely aligned.

In Tokyo, DPM Wong said “We … welcome … security arrangements that have emerged, like the AUKUS and the Quad, so long as these support ASEAN centrality, uphold a stable and secure region, and a rules-based order underpinned by international law”.  These comments are revealing.  AUKUS is “welcome” presumably as another means of “multi-engagement” but “ASEAN centrality” can be taken as an important qualifier – ASEAN needs to have the final world in its own security.  This is not a million miles away from New Zealand’s concept of an “independent foreign policy” which leads us to co-operate in defence and security with traditional parties  – including the US – while retaining our right to make decisions in our own interests. That applies equally to maintaining a strong and beneficial economic relationship with China.

In times like these, New Zealand, like Singapore, needs to proceed carefully in its relationships with competing super-powers.  Membership in AUKUS’ second pillar, if it were to come to that, may disturb this delicate balancing act.  Whether in security or economics, multilateralism and multi-engagement also serve us well.

This post was prepared by Stephen Jacobi, Executive Director of NZIBF, who is spending some time in Singapore.

[1] https://www.pmo.gov.sg/Newsroom/PM-Lee-Hsien-Loong-at-the-Boao-Forum-for-Asia-Annual-Conference-2023#

[2] https://www.pmo.gov.sg/Newsroom/DPM-Lawrence-Wong-at-the-Nikkei-Forum-28th-Future-Of-Asia#

[3] https://www.beehive.govt.nz/release/speech-iiss-shangri-la-dialogue-2023-honourable-andrew-little-mp-new-zealand-minister

[4] https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/multilateralism-and-dialogue-necessary-for-stability-in-the-region-s-pore-and-australia-leaders


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