The Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made an official visit to the United States on August 2nd, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of bilateral ties between the two states and give President Obama advice on America’s Asia policy. Singapore is a key state in Southeast Asia due to its First World level of economic development, its multi-ethnic makeup, and its influence in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). The leaders discussed many subjects, including the rise of China and security cooperation. But, what stood out most for analysts, was Prime Minister Lee’s views on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and its effects on America’s position in Asia.
As the Obama administration comes to a close, America’s “pivot” to Asia is increasingly challenged both at home and abroad. At home, presidential candidates Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump made attacking the TPP a large part of their election campaigns. Abroad, Obama has been criticized for seemingly failing to deal with a rising China. As Lee brought up, whether Obama’s most ambitious trade deal (which was intended to solidify America’s legacy in Asia) would even pass through the American Congress, and what would happen to the countries that have signed and ratified the treaty if the United States backs out, is a question that haunts many Southeast Asian leaders.
Prime Minister Lee warned Obama that whether TPP can be ratified will put American credibility in Asia to the test. Lee claims that whilst the nations of Southeast Asia would prefer America to be more involved in the region, the uncertainty surrounding the fate of the TPP agreement and the potential event that the U.S. fails to ratify a treaty that came from its own initiative would severely undermine their confidence in the United States. Furthermore, Lee bluntly stated that the goal of TPP is strategic, as well as economical. Ratification of the TPP would serve to continue American hegemony, and only America can fulfill the role of upholding international order in the region.
In the final joint statement between Lee and Obama, other than economic and cultural cooperation, security was another major topic. Lee reaffirmed Singapore’s interest in purchasing American F-35 fighters, and plans were made for the Singapore Armed Forces personnel to train in the United States and at Guam. Lee also endorsed the United States’ stance on freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, as well as calling on all participants to solve their disputes in a peaceful manner through international law. Other than this statement, Lee remained quiet on the recent South China Sea arbitration.
Singapore is an important player in the politics of the region and Lee’s visit is closely watched not only by Singaporean and American media but, also by those of China and Taiwan. China’s official media mostly focused on Lee’s endorsement of TPP, which they interpreted as a last ditch attempt by Obama to boost his faltering policies. Singapore is also important to Taiwan due to the new D.P.P. administration’s “southward policy,” which calls for Taiwan to diversify its economy away from perceived overreliance on the mainland. Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-Wen is also hoping for Taiwan to join the TPP free trade zone. Given that Lee has clearly signaled his preference for the United States over China in the region, whether China’s RCEP plan can succeed is put into question. If the key developed states of the region, including Singapore and Malaysia, are looking towards the United States to counter Chinese influence, China would find itself further isolated and its influence greatly diminishing over states in the region.
“Joint Statement by the United States of America and the Republic of Singapore.” news release., 2016-08-02, 2016, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2016/08/02/joint-statement-united-states-america-and-republic-singapore.
“Mei Guo: Bi Mian Tpp Tai Si Fu Zhong Ao Ba Ma Ban Jiu Bing Yao Li Xian Long Dao Fang.” In Dragon TV Midday News, 2:54. People’s Republic of China: Dragon TV, 2016.
“Shang Wu Jiu Zhi, Wan Shang Jiu Jia, Zhu Xing Dai Biao Da Lian Cai Zong Tong.” In Xing Wen Shen Hou Long, 49:28. Taiwan (Republic of China): Chung Tien Television, 2016.
Tau, Byron, and Carol E. Lee. “Obama, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong Vow to Push for Trade Pact.” The Wall Street Journal, 2016-08-02 2016.
Yong, Jeremy Au. “Pm Lee’s Us Visit: Beneath the Pomp Lies a Firm Foundation for Ties.” The Strait Times, 2016-08-05 2016.
 Jeremy Au Yong, “Pm Lee’s Us Visit: Beneath the Pomp Lies a Firm Foundation for Ties,” The Strait Times, 2016-08-05 2016.
Byron Tau and Carol E. Lee, “Obama, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong Vow to Push for Trade Pact,” The Wall Street Journal, 2016-08-02 2016.
 “Joint Statement by the United States of America and the Republic of Singapore,” news release, 2016-08-02, 2016, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2016/08/02/joint-statement-united-states-america-and-republic-singapore.
 “Mei Guo: Bi Mian Tpp Tai Si Fu Zhong Ao Ba Ma Ban Jiu Bing Yao Li Xian Long Dao Fang,” in Dragon TV Midday News (People’s Republic of China: Dragon TV, 2016).
 “Shang Wu Jiu Zhi, Wan Shang Jiu Jia, Zhu Xing Dai Biao Da Lian Cai Zong Tong,” in Xing Wen Shen Hou Long (Taiwan (Republic of China): Chung Tien Television, 2016).
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