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Southeast Asia from Scott Circle: Singapore PM Lee Visits Washington as Trump Readies for His Asia Debut

By Shannon Hayden, Associate Director (@ShannonKHayden), Southeast Asia Program (@SoutheastAsiaDC), CSIS

Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, will meet U.S. president Donald Trump at the White House on October 23—the fourth Southeast Asian leader to do so this year. Following visits by Vietnam’s Nguyen Xuan Phuc (May), Malaysia’s Najib Razak (September), and Thailand’s Prayuth Chan-ocha (early October), Lee’s visit distinguishes itself through its timing and the mature and stable nature of the U.S.-Singapore relationship.

The timing of Lee’s visit is key for two reasons. First, he will visit the White House as Singapore readies to take the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) chair, setting the agenda for the 10-nation group in 2018. Singapore’s position as a regional voice is amplified while occupying the ASEAN chair, and ensuring clear U.S.-Singapore communications during the coming year will be essential, particularly during discussions on North Korea, the South China Sea, and trade.

Lee’s visit also comes just days before Trump travels to Asia for the first time as president. From November 3 to 14, Trump will visit Japan, South Korea, and China for bilateral meetings, followed by visits to Vietnam and the Philippines for bilateral and multilateral meetings—the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ Summit in Vietnam and the U.S.-ASEAN Summit and the East Asia Summit (EAS) in the Philippines. The CSIS Southeast Asia Program previewed the top priorities of these meetings at its October 12 conference on Asian Architecture. Lee’s will be one of the last regional voices Trump hears before he embarks on his trip and the Singapore leader is certain to take the opportunity to try to shape Trump’s thinking.

The U.S.-Singapore bilateral relationship is multifaceted and well-developed, and Lee will arrive in Washington unaccompanied by the thornier issues associated with recent regional visitors. This should allow him to focus on matters of substance and present Singapore’s view on a range of issues. The 1Malaysia Development Bhd. corruption investigation and desire for normalization of U.S.-Thailand relations dominated media coverage of the visits by Najib and Prayuth. But Lee brings with him good news stories on bilateral security and economic cooperation.

U.S.-Singapore security cooperation is expansive and visible in ways that likely appeal to Trump. When the USS John McCain collided with an oil tanker near Singapore on August 21, the nation-state participated in search and rescue operations for missing sailors. Just days later, in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, Singapore deployed four CH-47 Chinook helicopters to Texas to assist with relief efforts.

The Chinooks are stationed in Grand Prairie, Texas, and are part of one of the largest foreign military presences on U.S. soil. Such deep levels of operational cooperation speak to the depth of the overall relationship and the trust built over 51 years of ties. U.S. littoral combat ships are also rotationally deployed to Singapore, their presence one of the most visible manifestations of the Barack Obama administration’s “rebalance to Asia.”

Bilateral economic cooperation is equally robust. Singapore signed a free trade agreement with the United States in 2003, the only such agreement with a Southeast Asian nation. Since then, U.S. goods exports have grown 62 percent and services exports by 175 percent. Singapore is one of the only major economies in Southeast Asia that does not have a giant trade surplus with the United States—in fact, the shoe is on the other foot. The United States enjoys a large and growing trade surplus with Singapore, with a goods surplus of $9.1 billion and services surplus of $9.7 billion in 2016. The United States is Singapore’s 3rd-largest trading partner, behind China and Malaysia, and Singapore is the 13th-largest goods export market for the United States.

The upcoming White House meeting will be the second time Lee and Trump have met in person. In early July, the two leaders met during the G20 summit in Germany and discussed the countries’ deep economic relationship and regional security issues, including North Korea and terrorism in Southeast Asia. The two have also exchanged multiple phone calls, starting with Lee’s December congratulatory call following the U.S. presidential election.

In August 2016, Obama hosted Lee for an official state visit commemorating the 50th anniversary of ties between the United States and Singapore, the first such visit in 30 years by a Singaporean prime minister. Lee’s upcoming visit, just over a year later, is classified as an “official working visit,” just below an official state visit. Lee will be a guest at Blair House, the president’s guest house. These high honors speak to the importance successive U.S. administrations have attached to relations with Singapore.

The steady U.S.-Singapore relationship provides space for a broader, regionally focused agenda, which should include discussions on trade, terrorism, and, most prominently, North Korea. Singapore maintains diplomatic ties with North Korea, although it does not have a mission to Pyongyang and hosts a minimal number of North Korean diplomats. Singapore’s role in North Korea discussions should take into account its ASEAN chairmanship and relationship with China, which has lately righted itself after a rocky previous year.

The solid state of ties also permits an examination of shortfalls from a position of confidence and calm discussion. The United States’ withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) leaves open the question of deeper U.S. regional economic engagement, but the move does not make Singapore quake, given the depth of bilateral economic ties. To be sure, Singapore views the TPP through a strategic lens, welcomes U.S. participation in a broader trade regime that balances China’s efforts, and has concerns about supply chain ripple effects from a U.S. pull-out. But its own strong position allows Singapore to make the case for international trade to Trump in ways other Southeast Asian nations cannot.

Stability is neither a headline-grabber nor an accident. Just as Lee is likely to advise Trump to pay attention to near-term crises and invest time in longer-term issues, the U.S.-Singapore relationship counts on a solid long-term foundation to weather short-term storms on either side. It’s a deft way to do things and seems especially useful in the unpredictable environment surrounding the Trump administration. This bilateral relationship has been carefully tended, and Lee should arrive in Washington confident that his government and past U.S. and Singaporean administrations have done what they can to set the stage for a successful visit.

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