PM Lee’s official visit to the US

After Obama, what next for Singapore-US ties?

Left: PM Lee leaving this message (above) in the guest book at Blair House, the guest house of the US President. With him were Mrs Lee and Mr Randell Bumgardner, Blair House assistant chief of protocol and general manager.
Above: PM Lee leaving this message in the guest book at Blair House, the guest house of the US President. With him were Mrs Lee and Mr Randell Bumgardner, Blair House assistant chief of protocol and general manager.ST PHOTOS: ALPHONSUS CHERN
Left: PM Lee leaving this message (above) in the guest book at Blair House, the guest house of the US President. With him were Mrs Lee and Mr Randell Bumgardner, Blair House assistant chief of protocol and general manager.
PM Lee leaving this message (above) in the guest book at Blair House, the guest house of the US President. With him were Mrs Lee and Mr Randell Bumgardner, Blair House assistant chief of protocol and general manager.ST PHOTOS: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Singapore's robust relationship with the United States was underscored during Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's official visit to the country earlier this week, said observers yesterday.

But one question on the minds of some was whether these strong ties will last after President Barack Obama leaves the White House.

Senior fellow William Choong of the International Institute for Strategic Studies-Asia felt a victory by Republican Donald Trump in the Nov 8 presidential election would not bode well for Asia.

The reason: Mr Trump has said that he might review America's alliances, including those with South Korea and Japan. Both should foot more of the bill for their defence, he added, suggesting that Japan arm itself with nuclear weapons.

Mr Trump has also said that he might not respect America's guarantees to defend Nato countries in Eastern Europe.

These guarantees are "regarded as sacrosanct by most of the foreign policy establishment, regardless of party" because they were born out of World War II and paid for with lives and money, noted Dr Choong.Such a shift would not bode well for Singapore, where "generation after generation of policymakers has pursued US engagement in the region", he added.

Should Democrat Hillary Clinton become president, the Obama administration's focus on building military and diplomatic ties in Asia is likely to remain unchanged, said international relations professor Tan See Seng of the Nanyang Technological University.

But one area of contention could be the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the multi-nation trade pact which Mr Lee and Mr Obama strongly advocated for in a joint press conference on Tuesday.

Mrs Clinton, who championed it when she was secretary of state, has since distanced herself from it because of domestic opposition.

But it might still stand a fighting chance, said Dr Choong, who sees it as possibly just a reaction to the anti-free trade segments of the US electorate. He also noted that her husband, Mr Bill Clinton, supported the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation regional grouping during his presidency in the 1990s.

Mr Lee, however, stressed in his speech at a state luncheon on Tuesday that despite the vicissitudes of American democracy, Singapore has continued to work closely with both Democrat and Republican presidents throughout its 50-year partnership with the US, noted political scientist Bilveer Singh of the National University of Singapore.

The experts gave three reasons for being optimistic about Singapore-US ties.

First, the relationship is built on a 50-year history that transcends individuals. Second, both have mutual interests and, third, they want the close relationship to endure.

What Mr Obama did by inviting Mr Lee to make this week's official visit and hosting a state dinner - a rare honour given on only 11 other occasions during his eight years as president - was to cement a relationship that began in 1966, said Prof Singh. The relationship was formed not by one leader but a series of leaders and administrations brought together by common interests, he added.

Both also recognise that the close relationship is in their interests. Singapore values America's continued engagement in the region, and America values Singapore as a strategic partner. "It is the bottom line that drives this special relationship," said Prof Singh.

The experts also pointed to joint cooperation in trade, security and defence, and counter-terrorism.

They noted that Mr Obama said on Tuesday that Mr Lee and Singapore are steadfast partners.

"It's an acknowledgement of the robustness and resilience of Singapore-US relations," said Dr Tan.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 05, 2016, with the headline 'After Obama, what next for Singapore-US ties?'. Print Edition | Subscribe