Singapore consciously cultivates its relationship with India as a way to counter-balance China’s growing influence in South East Asia, according to a cable written by American ambassador to the city-state, Franklin Lavin in 2004.
According to Lavin’s reading of the country’s new “India fever”, Singapore does not want China to dominate South East Asia and would rather have India as a counter-force to balance out the dragon.
For this purpose, Singapore is taking several actions to deepen its economic, military and political ties to India.
“The Government of Singapore is sending a concerted message that India is both wanted and needed in Southeast Asia to balance the rising influence of China and to further expand regional economic prosperity.
“A more robust Singapore-India relationship also serves US Government interests. It will demonstrate to ASEAN members [such as Malaysia and Indonesia] that India is a credible alternative economic and defense partner that they can turn to in the face of China’s growing power,” Lavin wrote.
“India is valued for its “considerable strategic weight,” according to Minister of Defense Teo Chee Hean. One Ministry of Foreign Affairs [Singapore] official noted that Singapore hopes India can contribute to regional peace and stability and use its weight to balance China’s growing economic and political clout in the region.
“Singapore has also encouraged its ASEAN partners to look to India as a source of “geopolitical balance” for Southeast Asia and it took the lead in bringing India into the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF).
“The Government of Singapore is also concerned about China’s ability to dominate future regional groupings, such as the proposed East Asia Community, and would prefer to expand the membership to include India, among others,” he added.
Despite getting its name, by most accounts, from the Indian word ‘Simha Puri’ (city of the lion) and having a large Tamil presence, most Singaporeans are ehtnically Chinese. Independent India and Singapore have never had really close relationship, though they were tied together as British colonies before independence.
Singapore has been working for several years to change the situation, Lavin pointed out.
“Singapore’s interest in India dates back to the early 1990’s, according to academic and ministry of foreign affairs contacts.
“During the Cold War, bilateral ties were limited due to India’s close ties with the Soviet Union and its support for Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia, which ASEAN opposed. After those impediments were removed, Singapore-India relations started to improve.
“In 1994, then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong visited India, the first of five visits over ten years. Indian PM Narasimha Rao returned the favor in 1994 and announced India’s growing interest in Southeast Asia in his “Look East” policy.
“After that fast start, however, there was little progress on deepening ties until the last two years,” he pointed out.
“As a small country with large neighbors, Singapore tries to draw in outside powers (such as the U.S.) to give them a stake in Singapore’s future. It also seeks a broad range of defense contacts and exchange opportunities for its armed forces and is especially interested in gaining access to training grounds given Singapore’s limited territory.
“For its economic development, Singapore can not rely on its small domestic market and has to gain and secure access to foreign markets for trade and investment. It also wants to bolster its role as a regional hub for trade, transport, and financial services.
“From the Singapore perspective, India offers a potential strategic counter-balance to growing Chinese influence in Southeast Asia, a defense partner, a large potential trade and investment market, and a user of Singapore’s trade and
financial services,” he went on.
Lavin, however, also pointed out that Singapore has had bouts of “India fever” before, “which faded when the substance failed to match the rhetoric.”
It may be noted that India and Singapore have come closer since the above cable was written. The two signed an comprehensive economic cooperation agreement (CECA) in December 2007.