Tightrope diplomacy in South China Sea

As a small nation, Singapore relies on the economic lifelines thrown at it in terms of trade and commerce. They help circumvent an otherwise limited domestic market. We have prospered thus.

We also lie in a politically sensitive region, with ethnic and religious disparities. The geopolitical forces are changing in a burgeoning and economically prosperous South-east Asia.

Asean has played a pivotal role in making it possible. It has remained largely apolitical, with member states upholding non-interference in one another's domestic affairs. It has not taken sides in the brewing "battle of wills" between powerful states from near or far.

But this uneasy peace is ruffled by the South China Sea dispute. Asean may be polarised when states are under increasing pressure to state their positions on the matter. A power from afar has joined the fray in standing up to a rising power in the vicinity.

That this rising power is an economic powerhouse makes the choice dicier. It serves as a huge export market for many Asean nations.

Singapore is China's largest foreign direct investor while China is its largest trading partner.

It is a dilemma when Asean states, including Singapore, have to huddle around China for economic benefits but sit on the other side of the divide when it comes to the South China Sea dispute. It is an unenviable position to be in.

Asean should remain apolitical. With 625 million inhabitants living in this economic community, its potential is huge. It augurs well for the aspirations of the people, all hungry to improve their economic lot. It should not be distracted from its original mission.

Singapore is a non-claimant state and it has no vested interest in the South China Sea disputes.

We should not be seen as being more allied to one power than the other, or unsuspectingly becoming a pawn on someone's chessboard.

The flux of international politics can change quickly. We may turn up on the "wrong" side of the divide, compromising economics.

Our relations with the big powers will also have ramifications on our relations with the other nations in the region.

That Singapore established diplomatic relations with China after many other regional countries had done so portends to this sensitivity.

The fast changing and complex ethnic and religious affiliations may cast us in poor light no matter which side we choose.

Singapore must exercise great diplomatic adeptness in such a murky geopolitical environment.

Lee Teck Chuan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 14, 2016, with the headline 'Tightrope diplomacy in South China Sea'. Print Edition | Subscribe