Singapore is Globalization’s clearest success story. A trading hub for centuries, this tiny island city-state of close to 6 million people sits at the mouth of the Strait of Malacca, the passageway through which one-third of the world’s seaborne traffic passes every day. Singapore is part of 20 free-trade agreements and has 31 trade partners. Globalization has helped it become one of the world’s wealthiest countries per capita.
Singapore’s economic dynamism is built atop a foundation of political stability. Lee Hsien Loong is only the country’s third Prime Minister since independence in 1965. Like his predecessors–including his father Lee Kuan Yew–he’s a talented and farsighted defender of Singapore’s interests, and he told me during a recent interview that he’s becoming concerned about antiglobalization anger in the U.S. and its implications for his region. He also fears that Washington is losing ground in Asia.
A shortsighted U.S. effort to prevent allies from becoming members of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and worsening U.S. relations with the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte are worrying. But Washington’s failure to approve the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an enormous trade pact with 11 other nations (including Singapore), is the most serious challenge to its place in Asia. “The one big thing you’ve done is set up the TPP. It shows that you’re serious, that you’re putting a stake here which you have an interest in upholding. And now you can’t deliver on the TPP,” Lee lamented.
That failure puts Singapore in a difficult position. “The Chinese go around with lollipops in their pockets,” Lee said. “They have aid, they have friendship deals, trade is an extension of their foreign policy. [Americans] don’t do these things.” The U.S. election has compounded his concerns. “Maybe Americans feel they don’t need the rest of the world anymore, and they wish it would go away. We don’t have that option,” Lee warned.
Singapore must protect its good relations with all sides. The city-state doesn’t need China’s cash, but it certainly needs trade and investment. And it needs the U.S. and China to coexist in Asia for the benefit of all. “The Chinese are convinced that you’re trying to slow their growth, and you’re convinced they might do something unpredictable,” Lee said. “How do you overcome that? It has to happen at the top.”
The good news? “Hillary Clinton knows all this,” said Lee. “As Secretary of State, she worked very hard for Southeast Asia.” This gives him hope that a new U.S. President can reverse the retreat of American influence. But that will depend–at least in part–on what happens on Nov. 8.
This appears in the November 07, 2016 issue of TIME.
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