The official visit of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to the United States, at President Donald Trump's invitation, was expectedly viewed by some in the light of a "delicate balancing act with China" the city-state is said to maintain . In a globalised world, tiny Singapore must axiomatically sustain the long and close ties it has with the two great powers. It has 51 years of formal diplomatic relations with the US and 27 years of the same with China, which PM Lee visited last month - a reflection of the mutual wish to advance ties, as observed then by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
If international order should rightfully be based on multilateralism and broad cooperation, small state diplomacy need not be conducted in an overly delicate manner as if neutrality still dwells in the Middle Ages, when it was seen as "trickery and indecision", as noted by historians. That is seen differently in the 21st century, with old-school non-alignment morphing into multi-alignment. While mindful of geopolitical developments in recent years, Singapore has continued to build ties with both the US and China, cultivated by successive generations of leaders. Broadly speaking, there is "a basic strategic congruence of views about the world and the region" with the Americans, as PM Lee noted last week; while Singapore and China also share strategic congruence and common interests in many areas, as acknowledged by the leaders of both countries last month.
Not just smaller states but also major powers will benefit, of course, if such commonality of interests is widespread in the region. That would "increase the incentive to work together rather than to collide with one another", as PM Lee noted during his US visit. This perspective should be promoted when Singapore assumes the chair of Asean next year. As a grouping of relatively weaker states, Asean ought to support an open regional architecture to advance trade, investments and defence cooperation. Being more interdependent, having a rules-based order and relying on multilateral systems represent a far better scenario for Asean member states than that of living in a world split into rival blocs headed by major powers.
In the economic sphere, the region would gain from continuing US engagement in Asia, despite its withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact. The superpower can also profit from Asia's dynamism which accounts for two-thirds of global growth. At the same time, the region must pursue the fruits of economic integration that can come from the China-backed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. It is also in everyone's interest to support major efforts of China like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and Belt and Road Initiative. The only viable guarantor of peace, security and prosperity in the region is multilateralism, to both seize opportunities and counter threats on the horizon.