Chinese military parade - via Flickr
"Mates" is how Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong described the relationship between his country and Australia after an October visit to Canberra, which saw the two nations sign pacts allowing for significantly greater cooperation in defense, trade, innovation and law enforcement - the first tranche of initiatives under the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership that both countries reached last year. What's more, under a $1.8 billion dollar deal 14,000 Singapore soldiers will be able to travel to Australia to train in an area that is four times the size of the island city-state. But beneath these warm bilateral ties, deeper tensions are making themselves felt.
Singapore's deepening military ties with Australia come on the back of increased Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. While Singapore is not involved in any maritime disputes with Beijing, it managed to get into hot water with China over its support for U.S-led freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea as well as for its soft backing of the ruling issued in July by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague. As such, Singapore has doubled down on its relationship with the U.S. by signing an enhanced defense cooperation agreement in December 2015 as well as hosting maritime exercises with the U.S. Navy in 2017. Leasing additional training space from Australia was therefore just the latest in a long series of moves made by Singapore in reaction to China's assertiveness.
On the other hand, Hong Kong's former chief secretary Anson Chan has warned that Australia itself has been getting too close for comfort to China. While Australia has always tried to dangerously balance Washington and Beijing by keeping one foot in each boat, there are growing fears that under Malcolm Turnbull's administration, Canberra has been shifting its weight more and more over towards China. "By the time China's infiltration of Australia is readily apparent, it will be too late" quipped Chan, before saying that "No one should be under any illusions about the objective of the Communist Party leadership - its long-term, systematic infiltration of social organizations, media and government." The implication is clear: get too cozy with China, and Australia's sovereignty and the balance of power in the region, could be compromised.
Indeed, the two countries are already significantly intertwined. Funds from the People's Republic of China (PRC) support Australia's higher education sector, media organizations, research initiatives and individual politicians and political parties. It also has a near-monopoly control of Chinese-language media and exerts pressure on ethnic Chinese people living in Australia to 'unite' and work for the cause of China.
China also seems to be influencing Australian military policy. A recent and unexpected decision to award its largest ever military contract to build 12 submarines to France rather than Japan is thought to be the result of Australian deference to China who openly campaigned against the Japanese bid, urging Australia to "consider the feelings of Asian countries" and arguing that Japan's military-export ambitions are an indication that it is failing to "uphold its pacifist constitution." And of course, many are already uneasy about Australia leasing parts of Darwin's port to a Chinese company with alleged links to the People's Liberation Army, despite Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei claiming that "There is no need for the Australian public to have such concerns over the lease of the Darwin port to a Chinese company".
This deepening of the relationship between Australia and China is understandably a cause for concern for the country's Australasian neighbors, not least in the light of the US' fluctuating relationships in the region. With Obama's "pivot to Asia" having its effectiveness called into question in the face of Chinese encroachment into the South China Sea, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) floundering, and some Asian academic experts voicing concern about President Obama's neglect of the long-standing US-Japan relationship, there are concerns that the US is not dealing correctly with the unprecedented task of quelling China's global ambition. Indeed, in the face of China's ever-increasing power, the US' faltering foreign policy is making Asian countries blanche.
And these fears are only being worsened in the run-up to the US presidential elections. While Hilary Clinton's policy can largely be predicted to be broadly aligned with Obama's, there is one major difference: she no longer supports TPP - the trade agreement on which the Asian Pivot rested. Without it, much of Obama's plans for the region will struggle to gain a meaningful foothold. Should Trump become president, we can expect to see him instigate a major departure from Obama's foreign policy position in a tenure which could be shaped with what one commentator describes as "a rejection of TPP...apparent willingness to gamble on inciting trade wars, abrogating alliances and supporting nuclear proliferation." The next President of the United States must stand up to a rising China and renew traditional alliances with America's strongest allies in Asia.
Relationships between Asian countries and the West are currently in a state of flux. However, if it is to have a hope of stopping the rise of China, the United States should instead harness its special relationship with traditional Asian allies such as Singapore and Japan, which have clearer stances towards Beijing. Even if the Asian Pivot proper fails to work out, the US must ensure that it continues to pivot towards these countries, not away.