Southeast Asia from Scott Circle: Singapore PM Lee Visits Washington as Trump Readies for His Asia Debut

By Shannon Hayden, Former Associate Director (@ShannonKHayden), Southeast Asia Program (@SoutheastAsiaDC), CSIS

Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, will meet U.S. president Donald Trump at the White House on October 23—the fourth Southeast Asian leader to do so this year. Following visits by Vietnam’s Nguyen Xuan Phuc (May), Malaysia’s Najib Razak (September), and Thailand’s Prayuth Chan-ocha (early October), Lee’s visit distinguishes itself through its timing and the mature and stable nature of the U.S.-Singapore relationship.

The timing of Lee’s visit is key for two reasons. First, he will visit the White House as Singapore readies to take the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) chair, setting the agenda for the 10-nation group in 2018. Singapore’s position as a regional voice is amplified while occupying the ASEAN chair, and ensuring clear U.S.-Singapore communications during the coming year will be essential, particularly during discussions on North Korea, the South China Sea, and trade.

Lee’s visit also comes just days before Trump travels to Asia for the first time as president. From November 3 to 14, Trump will visit Japan, South Korea, and China for bilateral meetings, followed by visits to Vietnam and the Philippines for bilateral and multilateral meetings—the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ Summit in Vietnam and the U.S.-ASEAN Summit and the East Asia Summit (EAS) in the Philippines. The CSIS Southeast Asia Program previewed the top priorities of these meetings at its October 12 conference on Asian Architecture. Lee’s will be one of the last regional voices Trump hears before he embarks on his trip and the Singapore leader is certain to take the opportunity to try to shape Trump’s thinking.

The U.S.-Singapore bilateral relationship is multifaceted and well-developed, and Lee will arrive in Washington unaccompanied by the thornier issues associated with recent regional visitors. This should allow him to focus on matters of substance and present Singapore’s view on a range of issues. The 1Malaysia Development Bhd. corruption investigation and desire for normalization of U.S.-Thailand relations dominated media coverage of the visits by Najib and Prayuth. But Lee brings with him good news stories on bilateral security and economic cooperation.

U.S.-Singapore security cooperation is expansive and visible in ways that likely appeal to Trump. When the USS John McCain collided with an oil tanker near Singapore on August 21, the nation-state participated in search and rescue operations for missing sailors. Just days later, in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, Singapore deployed four CH-47 Chinook helicopters to Texas to assist with relief efforts.

The Chinooks are stationed in Grand Prairie, Texas, and are part of one of the largest foreign military presences on U.S. soil. Such deep levels of operational cooperation speak to the depth of the overall relationship and the trust built over 51 years of ties. U.S. littoral combat ships are also rotationally deployed to Singapore, their presence one of the most visible manifestations of the Barack Obama administration’s “rebalance to Asia.”

Bilateral economic cooperation is equally robust. Singapore signed a free trade agreement with the United States in 2003, the only such agreement with a Southeast Asian nation. Since then, U.S. goods exports have grown 62 percent and services exports by 175 percent. Singapore is one of the only major economies in Southeast Asia that does not have a giant trade surplus with the United States—in fact, the shoe is on the other foot. The United States enjoys a large and growing trade surplus with Singapore, with a goods surplus of $9.1 billion and services surplus of $9.7 billion in 2016. The United States is Singapore’s 3rd-largest trading partner, behind China and Malaysia, and Singapore is the 13th-largest goods export market for the United States.

The upcoming White House meeting will be the second time Lee and Trump have met in person. In early July, the two leaders met during the G20 summit in Germany and discussed the countries’ deep economic relationship and regional security issues, including North Korea and terrorism in Southeast Asia. The two have also exchanged multiple phone calls, starting with Lee’s December congratulatory call following the U.S. presidential election. 

In August 2016, Obama hosted Lee for an official state visit commemorating the 50th anniversary of ties between the United States and Singapore, the first such visit in 30 years by a Singaporean prime minister. Lee’s upcoming visit, just over a year later, is classified as an “official working visit,” just below an official state visit. Lee will be a guest at Blair House, the president’s guest house. These high honors speak to the importance successive U.S. administrations have attached to relations with Singapore.

The steady U.S.-Singapore relationship provides space for a broader, regionally focused agenda, which should include discussions on trade, terrorism, and, most prominently, North Korea. Singapore maintains diplomatic ties with North Korea, although it does not have a mission to Pyongyang and hosts a minimal number of North Korean diplomats. Singapore’s role in North Korea discussions should take into account its ASEAN chairmanship and relationship with China, which has lately righted itself after a rocky previous year.

The solid state of ties also permits an examination of shortfalls from a position of confidence and calm discussion. The United States’ withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) leaves open the question of deeper U.S. regional economic engagement, but the move does not make Singapore quake, given the depth of bilateral economic ties. To be sure, Singapore views the TPP through a strategic lens, welcomes U.S. participation in a broader trade regime that balances China’s efforts, and has concerns about supply chain ripple effects from a U.S. pull-out. But its own strong position allows Singapore to make the case for international trade to Trump in ways other Southeast Asian nations cannot.

Stability is neither a headline-grabber nor an accident. Just as Lee is likely to advise Trump to pay attention to near-term crises and invest time in longer-term issues, the U.S.-Singapore relationship counts on a solid long-term foundation to weather short-term storms on either side. It’s a deft way to do things and seems especially useful in the unpredictable environment surrounding the Trump administration. This bilateral relationship has been carefully tended, and Lee should arrive in Washington confident that his government and past U.S. and Singaporean administrations have done what they can to set the stage for a successful visit.

Shannon Hayden is associate director of the CSIS Southeast Asia Program.

Biweekly Update

Thai prime minister visits Washington 
Thai prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha visited Washington on October 2-4 for meetings with President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and key U.S. congressional leaders. Prayuth’s October 2 visit to the White House—the first by a Thai prime minister since 2005— included talks on bilateral trade, sanctions on North Korea, the South China Sea, and the Rohingya refugee crisis. Trump hailed the United States’ strong relationship with Thailand, while Prayuth told media after the talks that he was “satisfied” with the results of the trip. The joint statement pledged the Thai government to hold free and fair elections in 2018, with Prayuth later clarifying that elections will be held in November 2018.

Cambodia moves to dissolve opposition party 
The Cambodian government on October 6 filed a petition with the Supreme Court requesting that the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) be dissolved. The petition was based on complaints to the Interior Ministry by two minor parties aligned with the government accusing CNRP leader Kem Sokha of colluding with foreigners. The Supreme Court on October 9 ordered the CNRP to provide a legal response to the complaints within 20 days. Sokha remains in jail on charges of treason, while his deputy, Mu Sochua, fled the country on October 2, saying she feared for her safety in the wake of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s threat to arrest more opposition politicians.

Malaysia begins Kim Jong Nam assassination trial 
The trial of two women charged with murdering Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, began on October 2 at the high court in Shah Alam, the capital of Malaysia’s Selangor State. Doan Thi Huong of Vietnam and Siti Aisyah of Indonesia are accused of exposing Kim to a lethal dose of VX nerve agent at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on February 13. The two women, who face the death penalty if convicted, have pled not guilty.

Indonesia, Vietnam make gains on World Economic Forum global competitiveness report 
Indonesia and Vietnam saw significant gains in global competitiveness over the past year, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2017-2018 released on September 27. The report, which assesses the factors driving countries’ productivity and prosperity, ranked Indonesia 36th globally, up from 41st last year. Vietnam rose to 55th place, up from 60th last year. Brunei, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines also saw modest gains in global competitiveness.

Indonesian president warns military to steer clear of politics 
Indonesian president Joko Widodo on October 5 in a speech delivered during a ceremony marking the 72nd anniversary of the Indonesian armed forces, urged military officials to stay out of politics. Widodo's statement comes in the wake of controversial comments made by armed forces commander General Gatot Nurmantyo, who is believed to harbor aspirations to run for office in 2019. Gatot alleged in a September 22 speech that non-military institutions in Indonesia had tried to import 5,000 illegal weapons on behalf of Widodo, and he said he would attack the national police if they acquired military-grade weapons. The administration denied Gatot’s charges, with the security coordinating minister on September 24 clarifying that he was misinformed about a plan by the state intelligence agency to purchase 500 weapons from a state-owned arms manufacturer. Gatot will reach the mandatory retirement age of 58 in March 2018.

Philippine president calls for warmer ties with U.S. 
Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte on September 28 called for friendly relations with the United States, striking a conciliatory tone after months of anti-American rhetoric. Duterte said that while Americans were not the Philippines’ “saviors,” the United States was a helpful ally and deserved thanks for its support in Marawi City, where Washington has provided intelligence and munitions to Philippine armed forces fighting Islamic State-linked militants. The president’s statement comes amid a period of rapprochement between the United States and the Philippines, with Secretary of Foreign Affairs Alan Peter Cayetano on September 27 meeting with his U.S. counterpart, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in Washington. President Donald Trump is expected to visit Manila in November to attend the East Asia Summit.

Philippine president's satisfaction ratings fall 
Net public satisfaction with Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has fallen 18 points since June, according to an October 8 report by pollster Social Weather Stations. Duterte remains broadly popular, with 67 percent of Filipino respondents expressing satisfaction with Duterte as opposed to 19 percent expressing dissatisfaction, but this net satisfaction score of 48 percent is 18 points lower than the 66 percent Duterte received in a June survey. Duterte’s net trust ratings also declined since June, falling 15 points to 60 percent. The slide in satisfaction for Duterte follows a period of public outrage over the government’s drug war killings involving teenagers.

Vietnam fires leader of Danang for misconduct 
The Vietnamese Communist Party’s Central Committee on October 6 fired the party chief of Danang, Nguyen Xuan Anh, and removed him from the Central Committee over charges of misconduct, mismanagement, and dishonesty. Anh had been party chief of Danang—which will host the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in November—since 2015 and had ascended through the party ranks quickly, joining the powerful Central Committee at just 40 years old. His dismissal follows the May firing of Dinh La Thang, a Politburo member and party chief of Ho Chi Minh City.

Vietnam’s economy vulnerable to potential Korean conflict 
Vietnam is the Southeast Asian country most vulnerable to disruptions caused by a conflict on the Korean peninsula, the credit rating company Moody’s warned in an October 3 report. Non-commodity exports to South Korea accounted for nearly 6 percent of Vietnam’s gross domestic product (GDP) last year, the highest proportion in Asia, and around 20 percent of Vietnam’s intermediate goods imports come from South Korea. The incorporation of Vietnam into supply chains for South Korean firms like Samsung and LG make the country particularly vulnerable to any weakening of production in South Korea, with Moody’s estimating that every 10 percent decline in South Korea’s GDP would lead to a nearly 1 percent decline in Vietnam’s economic growth. 

U.S.-ASEAN economic relationship valued at $672 billion by U.S. Chamber of Commerce 
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce on September 12 estimated the total value of the economic relationship between the United States and ASEAN at around $672 billion in 2015. In its “The ASEAN-U.S. Big Number” study, the chamber estimated the total value of the economic relationship by examining financial flows, sales by U.S. and ASEAN firms in the other’s markets, and government revenues derived from the operation of U.S. companies in ASEAN. The calculations also included the traditional measures of two-way merchandise trade and direct investment. This new methodology increased the estimated value of the relationship by around $145 billion.


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