The island powerhouse will always remain a force to be reckoned with, but it must dramatically reinvent itself in response to China and India-Japan’s competitive connectivity projects which plan to completely bypass it.
The success story of the city-state of Singapore is a byproduct both of its founder Lee Kuan Yew’s drive for strategic innovation and his country’s crucial geographic location. In all senses of the word, Singapore’s rise was a textbook definition of geostrategy put into practice, and it has a lot to be proud of with its world-class socio-economic accomplishments. The country’s infrastructure is top-notch, including its financial, educational, and administrative services, and it’s long been a sought-after destination for migrants all across the world who desired to “start anew” and live out their dreams. It wouldn’t be hyperbole to state that the composite identity forged on the island is just as unique in the region as the New Yorker one is in the US, and the resultant soft power aura that it exudes is a large reason why Singapore has grown so powerful over the years.
The city-state will always be an attractive partner any Great Power because of its large amounts of investment capital, high-quality work ethic, and overall impressive capabilities, but recent geo-economic developments in ASEAN suggest that Singapore’s strategic significance has peaked and that what was once seen as its God-gifted location will increasingly be made redundant by several competitive connectivity projects crisscrossing through the Greater Mekong Subregion (mainland ASEAN in Indochina). The Mekong-India Economic Corridor (MIEC) component of New Delhi and Tokyo’s joint Asia Africa Growth Corridor (also known as the “Freedom Corridor”) plans to connect India’s Trilateral Highway to Thailand with Japan’s forthcoming East-West and Southern Corridors from southeastern Myanmar’s Bay of Bengal coast to Vietnam’s South China Sea one.
The purpose behind the “Freedom Corridor” is to facilitate trade between the two Great Powers while linking the Indochinese transit states between them into a system of complex interdependency to counter the allure of China’s One Belt One Road global vision of New Silk Road connectivity. As for Beijing, its ASEAN Silk Road high-speed railway from the Yunnan capital of Kunming to Singapore will likely be used for north-south connectivity between China and Indonesia because the East-West vector of trade will be fulfilled by the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a possible rail route which might run parallel to the China-Myanmar Gas Corridor (a potential so-called China-Myanmar Economic Corridor or Burmese Silk Road), and the East Coast Rail Line (ECRL) in Malaysia crossing the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula just north of Singapore. Moreover, the ASEAN Silk Road might even bypass Singapore entirely if it connects with the ECRL for more direct access to the Strait of Malacca.
As China and its Indo-Japanese rivals focus more on large-scale multimodal megaprojects across Indochina, Singapore’s former supremacy as the gatekeeper of Indian-Pacific oceanic trade will rapidly fade. That’s not at all to say that it won’t be able to reap any of its historical transshipment benefits or is slated to completely lose its geostrategic significance, but just that neither of these will be nowhere near what they used to be within the next decade or so after all of the abovementioned projects are completed.
There’s always the possibility that the US might exploit one of the myriad Hybrid War scenarios in ASEAN to offset or delay some of China’s regional initiatives, but in any case, the momentum that Beijing has already built with CPEC is impossible to stop, and that South Asian project alone stands to strategically compensate for all of China’s Southeast Asian projects in the unlikely event that the US sabotages each of them. In addition, India and Japan are very serious about their joint Indochinese infrastructure plans and won’t be deterred (or bought off) by Singapore from going forward with them.
This therefore puts the island nation in the unenviable position of losing the erstwhile geostrategic relevancy which made it a world-class actor to begin with, and it will probably compel Singapore’s long-term planners to dramatically reinvent their country in order to salvage some of its significance in the coming decades. Like it was written earlier, Singapore still boasts very impressive soft infrastructure and investment capabilities which will always make it a prized partner for any Great Power, but it will no longer have the geo-military luster that it once held due to the aforementioned competitive connectivity developments. In light of this, Singapore will probably accelerate its transition from a city-state to an all-out corporate-state (or “corporatocracy”) on the world stage, with a high chance that it will try to carve out strategic management and investment niches for itself all along the Indo-Japanese “Freedom Corridor”.
Singapore has already thrown its weight behind these two Asian Great Powers and their shared American “Lead From Behind” ally in forming a presently (but by no means eternally, as argued in this analysis) indispensable geostrategic part of the “Chinese Containment Coalition” (CCC), so it’s logical that it will only accelerate along this trajectory in the coming future. However, Singapore is pressed to adapt to the changing geo-economic conditions in the region or completely lose out on its strategic significance in the CCC, which is why it’s poised to rebrand itself as the irreplaceable soft infrastructure ‘glue’ holding together the disparate parts of the “Freedom Corridor”. The country is globally competitive with its investment capabilities, educational standards, and expert management experience, which collectively endows it with a rare complementary value to India and Japan that’s also importantly non-threatening to their envisioned leadership positions in the 21st century due to Singapore’s much smaller physical and population size.
Considering how the very concept of “Singapore” as it’s nowadays known is a relatively new and manufactured identity (comprised as it is of very distinct and genuine parts), one which – just like New York City – isn’t so much a “nation” in the traditional sense as it is an ever-changing composite whole, then it wouldn’t be surprising if this “national idea” proceeds along the “natural” route set out for it years ago and transitions into a post-modern corporatocracy in the geopolitical sense. What’s meant by this is that Singapore could reconceive of itself as one large corporation of sorts involved in a variety of specialized “Freedom Corridor” projects in Afro-Eurasia, from port management to local educational initiatives and financing entrepreneurial activities, among many other possibilities. Instead of remaining the geostrategic gatekeeper of the Indo-Pacific, Singapore must become comfortable accepting that its future lays in reinventing itself to be the “Freedom Corridor’s” infra-strategic ‘glue’, and the best way to fulfill this seemingly inevitable role is to complete the transition into a full-fledged corporatocracy.
If Singapore’s leaders were smart, however, they wouldn’t have “Singapore Inc.” overtly side with the “Freedom Corridor” at the New Silk Road’s expense, but would instead have their corporatocracy balance between these two transcontinental series of competitive connectivity projects in order to maximize the island’s overall global gain. It can be anticipated, though, that the US and its Indo-Japanese allies will put enormous pressure on “Singapore Inc.” to continue backing away from Beijing and become overly dependent on the “goodwill” of these three countries to involve their top ASEAN partner in their various integrational projects across the world.
At this point it’s too early to say whether Singapore will continue to be a partisan player in the New Cold War (however much it publicly pleads the contrary), but what should be beyond a doubt to all observers is that the city-state must absolutely reinvent itself in order to remain strategically relevant in light of China’s New Silk Roads and the Indo-Japanese “Freedom Corridor” which plan to completely bypass it, and that there’s a strong chance that the country will transition into an outright international corporatocracy in order to remain enduringly competitive.
DISCLAIMER: The author writes for Regional Rapport in a private capacity which is unrepresentative of anyone or any organization except for his own personal views. Nothing written by the author should ever be conflated with the editorial views or official positions of any other media outlet or institution.
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Andrew Korybko is Moscow-based political analyst, journalist and a member of the expert council for the Institute of Strategic Studies and Predictions at the People’s Friendship University of Russia. He specializes in Russian affairs and geopolitics, specifically the US strategy in Eurasia. His other areas of focus include tactics of regime change, color revolutions and unconventional warfare used across the world.