Asian nations will resist any U.S. attempts to block the rise of China, as Washington pursues a new strategy in the Asia-Pacific region, according to Singapore’s former ambassador in Washington.
“I think if the United States re-engages Asia to contain China it won’t work because countries in Asia won’t sign on to containment,” Chan Heng Chee said in a phone interview from Singapore.
“We don’t want another Cold War. The United States should not ask Asian countries to choose. You may not like the results if you ask countries to choose.”
Ms. Chan returned to Singapore in July after 16 years as Singapore’s ambassador to the U.S., a tenure that made her the second-longest-serving foreign envoy in Washington after Djibouti Ambassador Roble Olhaye. She was replaced by Ambassador Ashok Kumar Mirpuri, who previously served as Singapore’s envoy in Indonesia, Malaysia and Australia.
President Obama has adopted a rebalancing stance toward the Asia-Pacific region and has spelled out military, economic and trade, human rights and diplomatic initiatives. Much of the commentary in Washington has described this policy as a “pivot” and framed it in the context of a military containment of China.
Ms. Chan arrived in Washington in 1996 at a tense period in the U.S.-Singapore relationship. Two years earlier, Michael Fay, an American student, had been caned by authorities in Singapore for vandalism and theft, sparking criticism of Singapore’s capital punishment sentences.
“When I arrived, we were at a low point, so the only place was to go up,” said Ms. Chan.
She described that period as a “blip” in the relationship.
“By the time I arrived, the Clinton administration was ready to turn the page, and cooperation now is at a very high level,” she added.
On Ms. Chan’s watch, the United States and Singapore signed a free-trade agreement and a strategic framework agreement that has laid the foundation for broad-based defense cooperation across a range of areas, including policy engagement, military operations and technology. Singapore agreed in June to allow the U.S. Navy to deploy four littoral combat ships to the city-state on a rotational basis.
Since the signing of the free-trade agreement, commerce between the U.S. and Singapore has increased 12 percent to 15 percent.
“U.S. two-way trade with Singapore is $50 billion,” said Ms. Chan. “We are a very small country; but as a trading partner we are not very small.”
Ms. Chan served during the tenures of three U.S. presidents — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
“It was quite a learning experience. There was never a dull moment,” she said.
“I saw the good years of the United States, and I saw the United States go to two wars,” she added.
Singapore supported the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan in 2001 and was a member of the coalition that toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq in 2003.
Ms. Chan left the United States with a great deal of respect for the patriotism of Americans, especially those who serve in the armed forces.
“The great thing about Americans is that they are very open,” she said.
Ms. Chan, who now has the title ambassador-at-large, will offer her government advice on specific policy issues. She will also set up the Lee Kuan Yew Center for Innovative Cities in the Singapore University of Technology and Design.
When she arrived in Washington, Ms. Chan was one of five female ambassadors.
Ask whether she faced any difficulty as a woman in a diplomatic world dominated by men, she paused and then said:
“I find that rather hard to answer. I do not know what it is like to be a male ambassador.”
But, she conceded, it is harder representing a small country.
“Big countries will always get attention,” she said.