Neutrality the best option for S'pore amid regional tensions

I agree with Professor Hugh White that the American pivot to Asia and the rise of China as a major power have effectively pinned nations such as Singapore between a rock and a hard place ("Choosing between America and China"; Sept 27).

This regional power struggle boils down to an irreconcilable difference in expectations.

The United States expects to sustain Pax Americana, and expects Asian countries to continue accepting its terms.

Over decades, the role of global policeman has become deeply entrenched in the American political consciousness, so it is highly unlikely that Washington can be persuaded to desist.

Meanwhile, China expects to grow its regional clout and global reach, and expects its neighbours to be receptive to its vision.

Its determination to succeed is arguably fuelled by a collective sense of injustice over historical humiliation, and raw nationalist ambition, in which case, Beijing will certainly refuse to yield.

When faced with this impossible choice, the best option is to pursue a neutral position.

The concept of official neutrality is not foreign to Singapore.

Since 1970, we have been a member of the Non-Aligned Movement, formed by nations seeking to distance themselves from the then-ongoing Soviet-American power struggle during the Cold War.

With China and America currently engaged in a tussle for influence, perhaps Singapore's interests are best served by consciously abstaining from direct involvement.

Take, for instance, the recent war of words between China's Global Times newspaper and our foreign envoy over Singapore's position on the South China Sea dispute ("Global Times editor defends article critical of S'pore"; Sept 28).

Singapore's key interests in the South China Sea lie not in territorial claims, but in avoiding armed conflict and preserving freedom of navigation. If we take sides, we risk inflaming the situation and jeopardising both objectives.

Neutrality also means that in the long run, Singapore can perhaps leverage its position as a disinterested party to bring all the territorial claimants to the negotiating table and hammer out a compromise.

Helping to shape a lasting solution is something we cannot do if we give even the slightest hint of taking sides.

Paul Chan Poh Hoi

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 06, 2016, with the headline 'Neutrality the best option for S'pore amid regional tensions'. Print Edition | Subscribe