Singapore’s New Vietnam Strategic Lifeline

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s visit to Vietnam in a farewell tour cements a strategic need to bolster bilateral relations.

It remains as a platform to send a signal to his successor that Vietnam remains vital for Singapore, also sending a signal to China that Singapore will have a lot of fallback options through regional allies and partners and it is not only confined with the option of the American strategic security umbrella.

Singapore will need Vietnam’s growing economic and geopolitical clout to ensure its own security and stability in a wide range of areas.

These include food security, energy chain and production, market access, investment opportunities in digital and new green economy, taking advantage of Vietnam’s new prospect of a leading regional economy, and in areas of defence and security.

Singapore needs Hanoi’s food security assurances, as unstable supply chain and risks involved in food supply chain made worse by the recent rice export ban by India all contributed to the deeper vulnerability of Singapore.

Singapore sees the huge emerging potential of Hanoi in various new economic progress parameters, including in new technology ventures in green and digital economy and new frontiers of energy security and green energy.

The exodus of top firms from China will benefit regional peers ready to fill the gap including Vietnam and India, and Singapore has foreseen the inevitability of Vietnam’s rise as an emerging economic power which will complement Singapore’s economic support parameter.

Human capital mobility is also needed by Singapore, and is needed to fuel Singapore’s future economic expansion.

In turn, Hanoi will need Singapore’s top quality investment and inflow of human capital and skilled workers, with the right expertise and capacity for Vietnam’s new push for energy security and moving up the economic chain in utilising skills, high skilled labour and quality investments in technologies and green and digital economy to transform Vietnam’s economic progress. This also includes the importance off start-ups and entrepreneurism capacity that are needed for Vietnam’s progress.

Singapore was Vietnam’s second-largest foreign investor as at last December, with a cumulative investment of US$70.8 billion (S$96 billion). Vietnam was Singapore’s 11th-largest trading partner, with bilateral goods trade growing 16.4 per cent year on year to $31.3 billion in 2022.

Singapore needs Hanoi to act as the regional balancer and in using Vietnam as the right counterbalancing force to China’s regional expansion.

Singapore is increasingly squeezed by Beijing’s push and scramble for influence and sway in courting Singapore and preventing it from falling deeper into the West’s security orbit. It thus sees Hanoi as a vital joint security partner in shoring up joint security capacity and an enhanced interoperability, in seeing Hanoi as a strategic partner in linking up with dependable and similar US allies, including Manila.

Singapore will need Vietnam as a launchpad and also a second front fallback in its economic linkages push for greater economic ties and outcome in its ventures in Taiwan and Southern China provinces including Fujian and Yunnan. Vietnam also serves as a strategic military partner in terms of geostrategic location for potential docking and naval base support for Singapore’s submarines and its military naval vessels, as part of a greater far sea power projection, that can serve as a gateway in further expanding the operational area in the free water that is closer to China and to Pacific expansion.

Singapore is well aware of the strategic opening to further link Vietnam’s growing Western military presence to form a deeper bulwark of interoperability and readiness with common US led military backing.

The port call by the US aircraft carrier in Vietnam are is the third by a US aircraft carrier in the 48 years since the withdrawal of American forces and the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. The Ronald Reagan is meant to reaffirm Washington’s intent to ramp up defence and security ties with Hanoi, in containing Beijing.

It is meant to send a strong message to Beijing that its own intent to secure its immediate backyard and closest neighbour from deeper Western security ties will not be successful, as the West is keen to deny Chinese grip in its southern flank. Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar are ingrained in the Chinese sphere while Vietnam remains the only thorn in the immediate neighbouring spectrum that poses the greatest threat to Beijing.

Already being cornered from Tokyo to Seoul to Manila, Beijing will need to deter further Western overtures in its southern opening. The port call is a strong deterrent message to Beijing that Hanoi remains a difficult player to be moulded in the framework of Beijing’s renewed charm offensive and dual carrot and stick strategy in courting Hanoi.

It is also to send an unwavering message to Hanoi that Washington is here to stay and will be the biggest and trusted ally to ensure Hanoi’s short and long term security assurances, despite Hanoi’s own apprehension on aligning too closely with the US in fear of Chinese retaliation both economically and militarily.

Beijing’s primary aim is to make sure its neighbors are well within its orbit of influence, and not to fall into the overtures from the US, fearful of losing its grip on these players and giving the space for West to strengthen its containment efforts.

Beijing will want to bolster its own response to the West’s increasing military ties with the region, knowing that the dependence on economic coercion and hard power projection alone will backfire in pushing these players away from its orbit into the security offering of the West.

In China’s military strategic calculations, the notion of international joint military exercises remain crucial in the external projection of military power, part of what strategists call “non-war military operations.” It combines both elements of hard and soft power projection capacities.

The Science of Military Strategy, a collection of strategies of Chinese military doctrines, outlines the criticality of joint exercises with foreign militaries as a means to “deepen mutual understanding with friendly nations, and enhance mutual political and military trust.”

Countries that remain outside of the periphery of its traditional satellite sphere, including Singapore and Vietnam, are among the critical targets to ensure that trust is gained and further confidence building measures are built to ensure that Beijing still can deny a deeper fall of these states into Washington’s courting.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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