Blake Herzinger served in the United States Navy in Singapore, Japan, Italy, and exotic Jacksonville, Florida.  He is presently employed by Booz Allen Hamilton and assists the U.S. Pacific Fleet in implementation and execution of the Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative.  His writing has appeared in Proceedings and The Diplomat.  He can be found on Twitter @BDHerzinger. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of any official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group. 

National Security Situation:  Singapore’s outlook on the South China Sea (SCS) dispute.

Date Originally Written:  January 13, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  March 13, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  Author believes in freedom of navigation and maintenance of good order at sea in accordance with the customary and written law of the sea.  This article is written from the point of view of Singapore toward the SCS dispute.

Background:  Conflicting territorial claims, as well as opposing interpretations of entitlements provided by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), have heightened tensions throughout the SCS.  The maritime order protected by decades of U.S. Navy engagement is being actively challenged by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which seeks a reorganization of the order without U.S. primacy.  Singapore sits astride the most critical sea-lane in Asia leading into the partially-enclosed SCS, but is not itself a claimant state in the myriad of disputes.  Singapore does have a vested interest in the peaceful and successful rise of its leading trade partner, the PRC, as well as a critical interest in continued deep engagement in the Pacific by its closest defense partner, the U.S.  Although Singapore’s population is nearly 75% ethnic Chinese, the microstate has made every effort to chart an independent, pragmatic course in foreign policy.  However, the PRC has recently increased pressure on Singapore to stay out of the debate on the SCS[1].

Significance:  Freedom of the seas is an “economically existential issue” for Singapore[2].  The rules-based order underpinned by freedom of navigation, and adherence to the UNCLOS, provided decades of economic growth and success in the region, particularly for Singapore.  However, the PRC’s desire to force a reorganization of the maritime order is directly resulting in erosion of accepted international maritime law and the PRC’s resultant conflicts with the U.S. and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) casts a shadow of doubt over the economic future of the region.  For Singapore, the outcome of the SCS dispute(s) may determine its entire economic future.

Option #1:  Singapore continues advocacy for freedom of navigation and pursuit of friendly relations with the U.S. and the PRC, while maintaining a policy of non-alignment.

Risk:  An increasingly powerful PRC constricts the diplomatic space for middle powers trapped between itself and the U.S., as evidenced in the PRC’s behavior toward Singapore over the past year.  The seizure of Singaporean Armed Forces Terrex vehicles in Hong Kong, recent inflammatory language published in China’s Global Times, and ominous warnings by the PRC that smaller states “need not and should not take sides among big countries,” are overt signaling to Singapore to avoid any position contrary to Chinese interests in the SCS[3][4][5].  More plainly, Singapore will suffer consequences if it is seen to side with the U.S.  Despite efforts to balance diplomatically, Singapore’s reliance on freedom of navigation will inevitably lead to confrontation regarding PRC activities in the SCS and, without a Great Power ally, Singapore may be left vulnerable to PRC pressure.

Gain:  In 51 years of statehood Singapore has achieved both the strongest economy in Southeast Asia and the most advanced military.  In this option’s best-case scenario, Singapore would continue to reap the benefits of partnership with both the PRC and the U.S. without either side trying to force the microstate to the sidelines, or into opposition with the other.

Option #2:  Singapore directs support for the PRC’s positions in the SCS.  Singapore could decouple itself from its defense relationship with the U.S. and effectively capitulate to Chinese demands.

Risk:  The opacity of the PRC’s goals for the SCS is the largest risk.  If the PRC succeeds in becoming the dominant power in the area, will freedom of navigation and free trade be protected, or restricted?  Unless Singapore knows the answer to this question, the existential risk posed to Singapore’s future would be catastrophic in scale.  Even if the PRC encourages free trade, by aligning itself with the PRC Singapore stands to lose its reputation for independence, undermining its trusted position as an honest broker and neutral place of business.

Domestic repercussions would be equally damaging.  Singapore’s population may be predominantly Chinese, but it is a multiethnic society with codified policies of racial equality, with the stated ideal that citizens see themselves as Singaporean rather than identifying by their ethic group.  Minority groups would almost certainly interpret a swing toward the PRC as the end of the meticulously guarded Singaporean identity standing as a bulwark against the racial discord that spurred race riots in Singapore’s infancy[6].

As a small, predominantly Chinese state between two large Muslim states historically suspicious of its defense policies, Singapore would also be inviting new friction with Malaysia and Indonesia by appearing to swing toward the PRC.  Furthermore, Singapore would likely lose high-level military training opportunities with the U.S., as well as unilateral training opportunities its forces enjoy on U.S. soil.

Siding with the PRC would significantly degrade the ASEAN structure by departing from the official non-alignment of the organization.  This would be a significant victory for Beijing, which has previously succeeded in driving wedges through ASEAN, but not with a country as vital to the group as Singapore.

Gain:  In the short-term, the PRC would likely reward Singapore for its obedience, possibly in the form of cessation of public castigation, as well as increased economic cooperation.  Should the PRC’s goals include regulation and control of the SCS, Singapore might find itself a beneficiary of PRC largesse as a state that did not block its ambitions.

Option #3:  Singapore begins actively participating in freedom of navigation operations, either unilaterally or multilaterally.

Risk:  Option #3 is the most likely to elicit retaliatory measures from the PRC, where the government would almost certainly interpret the action as siding with the U.S..

Gain:  Option #3 would first and foremost provide reinforcement to the freedom of navigation upon which Singapore itself depends.  Additionally, it could serve to combat the Chinese narrative of U.S. containment, instead highlighting the fact that the PRC’s unilateral actions have taken place “against the rights and freedoms of the international community [7].”

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


[1]  United States Central Intelligence Agency (2017). The World Factbook – Singapore. Retrieved 15 January, 2017, from geos/sn.html

[2]  Sim, W. (2015, March 5). Freedom of navigation vital to S’pore. The Straits Times. Retrieved from

[3]  Ping, C.K. (2016, November 25). China comments on Singapore armored vehicles. The Straits Times. Retrieved from 2016/11/25/ china-comments-on-singapore-armored-vehicles-and-equipment-seized.html

[4]  Loh, S. (2016). Full Text of Ambassador Stanley Loh’s Letter to Global Times Editor-In-Chief Hu Xijin, in response to an article by Global Times (Chinese) dated 21 September 2016. Retrieved from Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs website: pr/2016/ 201609/full-text-of-ambassador-stanley-loh-s-letter-to-global-times-edi.html

[5]  The State Council Information Office of the People’s Republic of China. (2017). China’s Policies on Asia-Pacific Security Cooperation. Retrieved from

[6]  Han, J (n.d.). Communal riots of 1964. In Singapore Infopedia. Retrieved from

[7]  The Struggle for Law in the South China Sea: Hearings before the Seapower and Projection Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, House of Representatives, 114th Cong. 11 (2016) (Testimony of James Kraska).

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