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Japan and Singapore: Can They Navigate the Challenges of a Dangerous World?

Insights_16th JSS

30 Mar Japan and Singapore: Can They Navigate the Challenges of a Dangerous World?

Centrifugal forces produced from within the international sphere have exerted stresses and intensified risks of a breakdown in the multilateral rules-based order. Navigating such politico-economic complexities underpinned the focus of the Public Forum at the Japan-Singapore Symposium (JSS), jointly organised by the Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA) and Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA) at the Four Seasons Hotel.

Her Excellency Ms. Sim Ann, Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs of Singapore, and His Excellency Mr. Shunsuke Takei, State Minister for Foreign Affairs of Japan, delivered the keynote. The panellists were:

  • Associate Professor Simon Tay, Chairman of SIIA,
  • Mr. Manu Bhaskaran, Council Member of SIIA and CEO of Centennial Asia Advisors,
  • Mr. Hiroyuki Akita, Commentator at Nikkei
  • Dr. Yukiko Fukagawa, Professor at Waseda University.
  • Ambassador Kenichiro Sasae, President of JIIA, and
  • Moderator: Professor Tommy Koh, Ambassador-at-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Singapore


Championing Free Trade

The predicament ensnaring Asia’s political economy, as Mr. Bhaskaran observed, is twofold. First, protectionist barriers across the region – such as inward-looking industrial policies and tariffs – are disproportionately affecting export-oriented economies. Second, the heated U.S.-China rivalry will inflict collateral damage on countries embedded in supply chains linking the two economic powerhouses.

The panel commended Japan and Singapore’s efforts in forging the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) as a high-quality free trade agreement, even amid faltering U.S. leadership. The panel also stressed the importance of reviewing and updating the Japan-Singapore Economic Partnership Agreement (JSEPA) such that its provisions are consistent with the rigorous standards in CPTPP.

Professor Tay pointed out that both Japan and Singapore welcome and actively participate in the Indo Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) initiative by the U.S. Notwithstanding this, Singapore also gives equal weight to other inclusive routes to integration, such as the ASEAN-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). In parallel to the CPTPP, Singapore hopes that Japan could make a commensurate effort jointly with Singapore to RCEP, which encompasses all key partners in Northeast Asia and ASEAN.

To sustain Asia’s free trade momentum, Mr. Bhaskaran advocated for bite-sized integration efforts between like-minded countries. He believed this approach would be more feasible than ambitious multilateral pacts. Mr. Bhaskaran highlighted the Singapore-Johor-Riau (SIJORI) Growth Triangle as an example for propelling Batam’s development. He encouraged Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia to establish joint efforts with Japan to build robust infrastructure connecting Batam and Bintan with Singapore.


Intersections with Digital and Sustainability

Both delegations emphasised the importance of greater bilateral cooperation between Japan and Singapore in emerging fields including green energy, decarbonisation and the digital space.

In the private sector, Sembcorp Industries has signed Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) with the Japan Bank for International Corporation (JBIC), IHI Corporation and Sojitz Corporation for renewable energy projects. In the public sector, Japan has exercised leadership in spearheading the Asia Zero Emissions Community (AZEC) and PaSTI-Japan-ASEAN Integration Fund developed at COP27, both of which Singapore has actively supported. Additionally, both countries have inked Memoranda of Cooperation (MOCs) covering digital governance and energy.


Professor Tay welcomed these cross-cutting elements and called for deeper integration between Japan and Singapore in these emerging fields, such as by reviewing the JSEPA to link green and digital economies back to trade agreements. In digital trade, Professor Fukagawa highlighted the need for inclusive rules to facilitate digital trade integration and emphasised the importance of continuing digital trade activities amid geopolitical tensions. It is hoped that Japan and Singapore’s pathfinding efforts to build norms in these fields can eventually have a positive spillover impact on region-wide efforts and economic integration.


Hedging for Security

Mr. Takei highlighted the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War, South China Sea, Taiwan Strait, denuclearisation in North Korea and instability in Myanmar as hotspots necessitating intervention from the broader international community. Mr. Akita concurred with Mr. Takei’s assessment of a deterioration in international security conditions, and called for peacetime deterrence to forestall conflict. He warned that an epochal shift from a post-world war to an interwar period could trigger a security dilemma and threaten nuclear non-proliferation.

Professor Tay noted that Japan and Singapore share multifarious security priorities but have one key divergence: whereas Japan is a stalwart U.S. ally, Singapore is only a strategic partner to the U.S. To prevent such a gap from widening, it is important for both countries to hold regular dialogues on political and security issues and continue to work on upholding mutually agreed principles such as the ASEAN centrality.

Mr. Akita remarked that Japan should learn from Singapore’s dual-hedged foreign policy, which he characterised as a “Plan B” approach. He expressed concerns over the inherent uncertainty in Japan’s “Plan A” policy of a unidirectional alliance with the U.S. The collapse in the premise of “Plan A” – a rules-based order guarded by a functional United Nations Security Council and U.S. strategic dominance – necessitates Tokyo’s pivot to “Plan B”. Japan should diversify from a security guarantee by the U.S. and pursue partnerships with other like-minded players in the region.

Professor Koh concluded the public forum with an optimistic remark that, amidst the unstable and dangerous world, Singapore finds comfort in the stable relationships between Japan and Singapore as well as between Japan and ASEAN.