President Obama Needs to Visit Singapore Next Year

In the midst of dramatic elections in Myanmar and ongoing tensions in the South China Sea, it is easy for the United States to take for granted one of its most reliable partners in Southeast Asia: Singapore. Over the past two decades, the city-state, which celebrated 50 years of independence in August, has been one of Washington’s staunchest allies in promoting free trade, bolstering security, strengthening the regional architecture, and sponsoring a wide range of capacity-building efforts across the region.

Although President Barack Obama stopped in Singapore briefly for an economic summit in 2009, a longer and official state visit that will allow him to interact with Singapore’s senior government officials, business leaders, youth, and civil society stakeholders will demonstrate the importance that Washington places on its expanding strategic partnership with Singapore. Obama has visited Myanmar and Indonesia twice during his term in office, and later this month he will stop in the Philippines and Malaysia for the second time over the past 18 months to attend two critical regional summits. He even visited Thailand in late 2013, before months of political turmoil prompted the Thai military to take control of the government.

The year 2016 presents a timely window for Obama to visit Singapore, as the two countries will celebrate the 50th anniversary of bilateral ties, which have gained more significance as Southeast Asia becomes the locus of regional geopolitics and economic trends. Regional summits next May and September will provide an ideal opportunity for the visit and give the president a chance to meet with the country’s next generation of leaders, who Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said were included in the new cabinet announced following elections in September.

The list of areas in which the two countries work together is long and diverse. Singapore was a key player in pressing the United States to join the small P-4 trade grouping that morphed into the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. Singapore recognized, even before Obama announced the rebalance to Asia, that U.S. participation in this trade pact would be critical to ensuring Washington’s long-term engagement in the region.

Singapore was the first country in Asia with which Washington completed a free trade agreement (FTA) in 2004. Despite the fact that the two countries are largely free traders, the U.S.-Singapore FTA has been one of the United States’ most successful trade agreements. Two-way trade, which reached $47 billion last year, has surged by a whopping 50 percent over the past decade. This makes Singapore—which is smaller than the U.S. state of Rhode Island and has a population of only 5.5 million— the United States’ 17th largest trading partner. The U.S. trade surplus with Singapore last year stood at $14 billion.

The stock of U.S. investment in Singapore nearly topped $180 billion last year, more than twice the level in China and six times more than in India. Singapore’s investment stock in the United States reached almost $21 billion in 2014 in such companies as offshore oil rig builder Keppel AmFELS in Texas and global agribusiness Olam International in California. More than 3,600 U.S. companies have operations in Singapore, and for many of them, the city-state serves as their regional headquarters. That’s not surprising considering that Singapore consistently ranks first or second in the World Bank’s annual ease-of-doing business report.

While Singapore is a strong supporter of U.S. security leadership in Asia, it is also an adept strategic player that Washington needs to keep close. Singapore’s officials have often advised Washington on the importance of striking a strategic balance in its approach toward Southeast Asia, reminding U.S. policymakers that Southeast Asian countries do not want to be dragged into rivalry between the United States and China and that attempts to contain Beijing will be counterproductive.

Singapore has been a vital security partner for the Unites States in Southeast Asia since the Philippine Senate voted to push the U.S. military out of Clark Air Base and the Subic Bay naval base in 1991. The bilateral Strategic Framework Agreement, which the United States signed with Singapore in 2005, allows the U.S. military access to Singapore’s facilities on a rotational basis.

The U.S. Navy also operates a logistics command unit in Singapore, which coordinates ship deployments and logistics in the region. Squadrons of U.S. fighters are rotated through Changi Naval Base for one-month stints, and Singapore has agreed to host four littoral combat ships on rotational deployments—with the first ship completing its mission in late 2013.

Singapore established the Information Fusion Center in 2009, aimed at improving maritime domain awareness and information sharing among 35 countries, including the United States. It became the first Southeast Asian country to join the U.S.-led coalition to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in late 2014, and has contributed planning staff and air refueling assets to the coalition. It participates in counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, and has contributed troops to the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.

The United States, meanwhile, is the largest arms supplier to Singapore, having provided such sophisticated equipment as F-15 and F-16 fighters. Singapore sends more than 1,000 military personnel for training in the United States each year, and several Singapore helicopter and fixed-wing detachments are stationed at U.S. Air Force bases in Arizona, Idaho, and Texas. Singapore participates in numerous bilateral and multilateral training exercises with the United States, including Cobra Gold, Forging Sabre, and the Rim of the Pacific naval exercise.

Singapore is an indispensable partner for the United States in working to strengthen ASEAN. The Unites States and Singapore in 2012 established a third-country training program focused on connectivity, sustainable development, and regional resilience. Since then, the two countries have organized 16 courses through which they have provided capacity building to officials from less developed ASEAN member countries. The two governments agreed earlier this year to expand this training initiative across the region.

As Washington revs up its engagement with Asia, it is important that the United States fully appreciates and taps into its robust ties with Singapore. Toward that end, it is critical that Obama visits Singapore on one of his swings through the region next year.

(This Commentary originally appeared in the November 12, 2015, issue of Southeast Asia from Scott Circle.)

Murray Hiebert is senior fellow and deputy director of the Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS. Hunter Marston is a researcher with the Chair for Southeast Asia Studies.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2015 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Murray Hiebert
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Southeast Asia Program

Hunter Marston