Singapore quiet but assiduous as summit host

By Ei Sun Oh Source:Global Times Published: 2018/6/7 14:08:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Singapore as an independent nation was born during tumultuous times in international history. Malaysia, of which Singapore was an integral part, was then barely two years old and swarmed by both rampant racial sentiments and even an intermittent domestic insurgency. The two countries parted way amicably, with Malaysia almost immediately sponsoring Singapore's membership in the United Nations.

Since then, Singapore has charted a unique path in its foreign policy as a small city-state. On most regional issues, Singapore joins at least most of the member states of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN, the annual rotating chairmanship of which is currently held by Singapore) in having a more or less common stance. But on foreign-policy issues Singapore deems vital to its existence, it would chart its own course, explaining to and persuading other ASEAN member states along the way.

Indeed, in many circumstances, the rest of ASEAN looks up to its smallest member state for guidance and leadership, such as during the negotiations leading to the eventual establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015, as Singapore possesses unrivalled expertise and famed professionalism as one of the world's largest trading powers (despite its size) necessary for such a momentous regional initiative in trade, investment and development.

It is perhaps partly due to Singapore's unique reputation that in recent years it has also evolved into an increasingly favorite location for high-level meetings. Traditionally, the world's preferred choice for peace talks during times of war and assorted other secret rendezvous is Switzerland, and especially the city of Geneva, where I used to work. Switzerland has been widely considered a "neutral" nation in modern times. It was spared invasion during both World Wars, and has become one of the world's pre-eminent financial centers with tremendous amount of wealth. 

In fact, although hosting the European headquarters of the UN (at Geneva) since the world body's inception, Switzerland did not become a member state until 2002 and has never joined the EU despite its geographical centrality in the continent. It is perhaps this sort of somewhat strict neutrality verging on the absolute that has attracted many rival parties on the international arena to initiate talks there. Presidents Ronald Reagan of the US and Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union, for example, strolled along the shores of Lake Geneva, discussing dismantling of their vast nuclear arsenals. Both the UN's Palais des Nations and the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva also saw their share of open and secret summits.

There have of course been "summit-hosting competitors" to Geneva over the years, most of them other European cities. Paris hosted the Vietnam War peace talks between US secretary of state Henry Kissinger and North Vietnamese leader Le Duc Tho, leading to their being jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Oslo and Madrid were the sites where a quarter century ago the Palestinians and the Israelis instituted talks for resolving the then major Middle East conflict. And more recently Vienna, headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency, where the now embattled Iran nuclear deal was forged.

As the world's "center of gravity" in terms of power and influence moves inexorably toward Asia, a "closer" location for various high-level talks became increasingly desirable. And Singapore came to the fore, with its strategic location, sophisticated and secure meeting facilities, a nuanced foreign policy and in general a pleasant atmosphere for many parties concerned. Singapore gained tremendous experience hosting ministerial and even higher-level meetings, the most prominent of which is perhaps the annual Shangri-La Dialogue held since the turn of the century, where many ministers of defense from the region and beyond gather to exchange ideas on strategic issues.

Singapore was thus also the choice of location for the historic meeting between the leaders from both sides of the Taiwan Straits. The unprecedented event in a sense cemented Singapore's reputation as the preferred location for such high-level meetings. Singapore's low-key, unobtrusive, yet diligent and professional "hosting service" during this and other momentous events did not go unnoticed on the global stage.

It thus came as not much of a surprise when it was announced that Singapore would host US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as they hold the first ever summit between the two nations technically still at war. The world eagerly awaits the peace deal, if any, that would result from such a summit. Meanwhile, Singapore will continue to play its role as a quiet but assiduous host.

The author is senior adviser on international affairs, Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute, Malaysia.





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