The Straits Times says

A principled approach to diplomacy

These are trying times in which to restate the fundamentals of Singapore's foreign policy, as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong did on his recent visit to Japan. PM Lee was clear that Singapore must never be seen to be "playing multiple sides", but must have a coherent and consistent position of its own which would not vary depending on the country that it was dealing with.

That longstanding position is the logical reflection of a basic desire to be friends with all countries which are prepared to befriend Singapore. This desire was tested, but not defeated, during the Cold War. Then, even the Republic's economic and strategic closeness to the United States did not preclude its recognition of the Soviet Union as a superpower with legitimate global interests. Nor did Singapore lose its independent voice at the Non-Aligned Movement, a grouping meant to preserve a measure of Third World autonomy in the winner-takes-all competition between Washington and Moscow.

Unfortunately, the post-Cold War world of today possesses most of the dangers of that era without its strategic simplicity, which made choices manageably clear for players large and small. World-destroying nuclear weapons remain a question mark on the future of humanity itself, but they are spread out among a host of countries that have little chance of arriving at a consensus on the reasons for their use.

The strategic landscape is fragmenting in other ways too. The fate of America's pivot to the Indo- Pacific awaits US President Barack Obama's departure from office. His other legacy of particular importance to Asian countries, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, could be abridged or abrogated, depending on his successor. China's strategic rivalry with America has spilled over into the South China Sea and Asean unity is being questioned over the maritime dispute.

The picture elsewhere is also unsettling. US-Russian relations have sunk over the Syrian crisis. Meanwhile, Moscow and Beijing are warming up to each other. As for Europe, its ability to be a stabilising pillar of the global architecture has been weakened by the secession of Britain. Elections in Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands might in coming months point to the future of the European Union.

It is through these unsteady times that the city-state will have to navigate its way. Resisting the centrifugal pulls of great powers has become a habit of life. That instinct must lead it on, in a principled way, whether it is labelled a red dot in South-east Asia or is wrongly accused of taking sides on the South China Sea issue. Small nations can easily become tactical targets. At such times, its best recourse is to stick to time-tested principles and for its people to remain steadfast in defending their interests.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 07, 2016, with the headline 'A principled approach to diplomacy'. Print Edition | Subscribe