Saturday 30 May 2020 | 06:38 | SYDNEY
Saturday 30 May 2020 | 06:38 | SYDNEY

A useless feud with Singapore?


Rory Medcalf


8 December 2009 15:11

With real challenges like climate change, China's rise, nuclear proliferation and the fraying of Pakistan dominating Australia's horizons, you would think that the last thing we need is a prolonged diplomatic fight with a largely likeminded country.

Yet, from the tenor of Peter Hartcher's column in today's Sydney Morning Herald, concerning the recent Australian-hosted conference on a prospective Asia-Pacific 'community', a feud with Singapore is brewing.

It's all about membership of a club: who should be in and who should be out of an idealised future summit to discuss regional challenges. Singapore wants to ensure that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) — of which it is a key member — remains at the core of any future process. Australia seems to have a more open mind. Not, you would have thought, the stuff of which grand diplomatic drama is made.

According to Hartcher's story, Singaporean representatives allegedly tried to embarrass Australian Prime Minister Rudd on a recent visit, by springing an instant electronic audience poll when he addressed a business leaders' event on the regional community idea. If true, it was an underhand sort of stunt, and one can imagine the outrage were Australia ever to try something so undergraduate on a visiting regional leader. 

Then, last weekend, Singaporean participants at the Sydney meeting were reportedly riled by suggestions that there was now something approaching consensus to set up a so-called eminent persons group to carry forward the conversation, a proposal made by a South Korean elder statesman. 

Step back for a moment from the immediate subject of the spat — namely, the ideal membership of a regional summit — and think about the big picture. Australia and Singapore have largely congruent strategic interests.  Both benefit from inclusive regional structures, the freest trade possible, cooperation against transnational threats such as terrorism, secure sealanes and the effectiveness of energy markets. 

Both want to keep the US militarily committed to Asia. Both benefit economically from China's rise but neither wants Beijing to be destabilisingly dominant. Both want India and Japan more engaged in regional security, maritime and otherwise.

The current differences over 'ASEAN centrality' could have been minimized. They still could be, if both capitals are prepared to pause, and not back into narrow corners of non-negotiation. After all, Canberra now recognises that there's little appetite for a whole new regional organisation, so its best bet will be to tinker with the existing architecture, such as the East Asia Summit (EAS). The EAS grew out of ASEAN, and not only is Singapore comfortably a member but it helped support Australia's admission, despite Chinese resistance.

Both Australia and Singapore have an interest in making the EAS more effective, reducing the grip of the ASEAN consensus rule on its proceedings, bringing in the US, and crafting a more flexible chairing arrangement in which, for instance, the chair alternates annually between an ASEAN and a non-ASEAN member, or is shared each year by one of each, as in ASEAN Regional Forum working groups.

Even if Canberra also ends up encouraging some sort of regional concert of powers, an improved EAS is worth pursuing in parallel.

Canberra and Singapore should also think twice about the real nature of the Lion City's professed devotion to ASEAN. Singapore protests too much in its defence of ASEAN. Its love of that grouping is strictly limited. It is also keen to engage external powers like the US, India and even Australia. Its military ties with each of these countries — in other words, its real strategic trust — are far deeper than with its ASEAN neighbours.

What now? If Singapore really is planning to make a fuss about the way the regionalism debate is developing, Australia would be well advised to put on its best Asian smile, downplay differences, and quietly get on the job of advancing its own — and common — interests. An undiplomatic public tussle with Singapore would be a mutually painful enterprise and a needless diversion of finite foreign policy attention and resources.

Photo by Flickr user tuis, used under a Creative Commons license.