SINGAPORE: Critics of President Donald Trump previously opined that the many unfilled Asia policy positions at the Department of State would persist as long as Rex Tillerson remained Secretary of State.
Amid President Trump’s announcement that his planned summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will take place in Singapore on Jun 12, and Mike Pompeo’s taking over as Secretary of State, now is the time to address one of the most important unfilled US ambassadorships.
More broadly, as a defence partner, free trade partner and export market that supports 215,000 American jobs, and with which the United States enjoys a US$20 billion trade surplus in goods and services annually, Singapore certainly deserves the courtesy of a US ambassador.
Filling the top post will also strengthen the US’ ability to continue expanding bilateral cooperation in areas of mutual interests.
SECURING BILATERAL DEFENCE RELATIONS
The role of Singapore vis-à-vis US national security strategy in the Indo-Pacific cannot be overstated, which makes the absence of an ambassador all the more concerning.
Both sides clearly place importance on defence cooperation. In April 2017, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen was among the first foreign defence ministers to visit Defence Secretary James Mattis during the early days of the Trump Administration.
The enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (eDCA) signed in December 2015 strengthened cooperation in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, cyberdefence and biosecurity, and built on earlier bilateral agreements including the forward deployment of US naval vessels, the 1990 Memorandum of Understanding and the 2005 Strategic Framework Agreement.
Indeed, the US and Singapore maintain an excellent and long-standing bilateral defence relationship, and with the confirmation last December of Randall Schriver as the Pentagon’s Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific affairs, such ties are likely to expand.
SENSITISING THE US TO SINGAPORE AND ASEAN’S INTERESTS
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had excellent relations with recent US Presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama.
Mr Lee also met President Trump in Washington DC in October 2017, during which time the two leaders issued a statement reaffirming the strong and enduring partnership especially in the economic, defence, security, and people-to-people spheres, and also witnessed the signing of an agreement by Singapore Airlines to purchase 39 Boeing aircraft for US$13.8 billion that will create more than 70,000 US jobs.
Despite the good personal ties at the leadership level, issues of disagreement are bound to surface even between countries that share common interests and shared perspectives on regional issues.
In December 2017, Singapore joined more than 100 United Nations members to vote in favour of a motion to reject the US decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital, despite US warnings to its friends that the US "will remember this day".
Where disagreements surface in multilateral initiatives, Singapore must be expected to move forward in a direction in line with its national interests, as with any other country.
Singapore, with 10 other countries, inked the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership despite the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the original TPP.
Periodic disagreements and discussions on regional issues require a US ambassador on post to serve as a facilitator and mediator between Washington and Singapore.
Additionally, Singapore chairs ASEAN this year, which is an important platform for regional countries in Southeast Asia to engage extra-regional countries like the US on areas of shared interests.
Perhaps most importantly for the maintenance of excellent bilateral ties is the need for the United States to familiarise itself with Singapore’s transition to the fourth generation leadership team.
With last month’s extensive cabinet reshuffle, now is the time for a US ambassador to expand relationships with leaders in Singapore who will lead the country into the future.
EXPLAINING US POLICY TO SINGAPORE
The Trump Administration’s National Security Strategy published by the White House last December pledges to strengthen the US' partnerships with Singapore, though China, with whom Singapore maintains excellent relations, is identified as a key global competitor to the US, along with Russia.
The 2018 National Defence Strategy, published by the Pentagon in January, identifies as a main concern “China’s military modernisation, influence operations, and predatory economics to coerce neighbouring countries to reorder the Indo-Pacific region to their advantage”, and states that the strategy’s most far-reaching objective is to set the military relationship between the US and China on “a path of transparency and non-aggression”.
A US ambassador will explain to stakeholders in Singapore, including policymakers, scholars, and the defence industry, how both strategy documents will shape US foreign policy in Asia.
Amid White House concerns about China’s gaining access to important technologies and trade imbalances, the Trump administration recently refused to allow Broadcom to proceed in its proposed acquisition of Qualcomm, forcing Broadcom to abandon what would have been one of the biggest takeovers in technology industry history.
An ambassador would be an important spokesman to explain why this outcome occurred notwithstanding the close trade ties between both countries, and especially as Broadcom was essentially run from its San Jose, California office and recently completed the transition of its parent to a Delaware corporation.
As to the possibility of a tariff war with China, now that China and the US do not appear to be much closer to a solution, the concerns of many US business executives who oversee Asia businesses from a regional headquarters in Singapore, as well as Singaporean companies who manufacture in China for export to the US, can best be addressed by an ambassador who can shed light on considerations behind the Trump Administration’s trade policies.
WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR IN A US AMBASSADOR
Recent US ambassadors to Singapore have been political appointees rather than career foreign service officers.
Previous and relevant government service is also important. Prior to his ambassadorship in Singapore, Jon Huntsman was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce for East Asia and the Pacific in the George HW Bush administration and a Staff Assistant to President Ronald Reagan.
Frank Lavin was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Asia and the Pacific in the George H W Bush administration and White House Director of the Office of Political Affairs under President Reagan.
Most US ambassadors to Singapore identify an achievable goal that will serve as a sustainable legacy, such as Ambassador Lavin’s efforts to negotiate and sign the US-Singapore Free Trade Agreement or Ambassador David Adelman’s initiation of the US-Singapore Strategic Partnership Dialogue.
Past ambassadors also typically continue to contribute to Singapore. Lavin later served as Under-Secretary for International Trade at the Department of Commerce, where he promoted bilateral trade, and he currently is a director of Singapore’s UOB.
Adelman went on to serve as a member of the Monetary Authority of Singapore’s Capital Markets Committee.
With Singapore’s membership in the CPTPP, and the Trump Administration’s decision to implement trade remedies to address trade imbalances between the US and its trading partners, the next US ambassador must have an intimate understanding of US–Singapore trade relations.
Whether it comes to understanding Section 301 of the 1974 Trade Act that is the basis for many of the significant trade remedies announced with regard to China, customs regulations, Singapore’s investment laws, intellectual property rights protection amid a rapidly changing digital economy, and World Trade Organisation processes, an expertise in global trade is crucial.
DESERVING OF A US AMBASSADOR SOON
Singapore is one of the Trump administration’s key partners in the Indo-Pacific and as such, deserves a US ambassador on post as soon as possible.
As the Trump Administration plans the Trump-Kim summit, implements an Indo-Pacific strategy, and responds to China’s unfair trade practices, the need is increasingly urgent.
Even as the US ambassador to Singapore can help set the tone for US diplomacy not only in Singapore, but for the broader region, the unfilled position in Singapore is also a reminder that there is also no nominee to serve as US ambassador to ASEAN, for whom the experiences discussed above are also relevant.
Let’s hope the Trump Administration nominates an ambassador to Singapore, as well as one to ASEAN soon.
The author is a political analyst who advises on US trade and security relations with Asia. He previously served as Asia Chairman of Republicans Abroad. The views expressed herein are his own.