View from Singapore

Near and far, small countries are worrying over Russia’s and China’s territorial grabs

May 11, 2014
May 11, 2014

SINGAPORE—By appearances, this tiny island nation has little to worry about—it is an economic and military powerhouse in which one in six citizens is a millionaire. Situated near the equator, it has even been sheltered from the extreme-weather events to which most other nations have been subjected because of climate change.

But leading Singaporeans are raising a substantial fear—of attack by one of their larger, less-affluent, and sometimes-angry neighbors. The concern is a potential contagion from events thousands of miles away in the South China Sea and Europe, where China and Russia are forcing their will and swallowing the territory of their own smaller neighbors.

“When we see something like Crimea, it sends shivers down our spine because you fear that someone can just come and take you over,” said Patrick Daniel, editor-in-chief of Singapore Press Holdings.

Military trouble for Singapore seems far-fetched. Its military is far stronger and more purposeful than those of its natural nearby rivals, Malaysia and Indonesia. Singapore spends 20% of its government budget on its military, making any war improbable and, even if one happened, likely to be short-lived. But the watching Russia and China grabbing Ukrainian and Vietnamese territory with impunity is still profoundly discomfiting.

In eastern Ukraine, the Donetsk and Luhansk regions are holding referendums today on whether to declare themselves separate nations. Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces have been at battle in the nearby cities of Mariupol, Odessa, and Slovyansk, too. If the vote is to separate, leaders in Kyiv warn that the country and its social system, bereft of its industrial core, will collapse.

Recent remarks by Russian president Vladimir Putin, urging the postponement of the referendums, could suggest that even he may recognize that he took his brinksmanship with Kyiv too far. But it appears to be too late to call off the vote as events have assumed a life of their own.

The context is a two-decade-old Russian playbook whose previous victims have included Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Moldova. In those cases and in Ukraine, Russia has used unmarked, clandestine forces to needle latent ethnic or clan tensions left over from the Soviet period, resulting in the outbreak of violence. Both Azerbaijan and Georgia lost about 20% of their territory in their respective conflicts, and Ukraine seems on the way to a similar fate after the departure of Crimea and now with parts of eastern Ukraine up in flames.

In the case of Vietnam, a drilling ship operated by the Chinese oil company Cnooc last week put down anchor in waters claimed by Hanoi. The drilling ship, towed by a tug, was accompanied by an estimated 30 Chinese ships including Coast Guard vessels. Vietnam responded by dispatching some two dozen of its own military ships. The two sides began to ram each other (the Chinese say its ships were rammed 171 times.) The Chinese fired a water cannon.

Because Vietnam does not want war with China and no one including the US is likely to come to its aid, Cnooc appears likely to be able to hold the ground and, if it wishes, to begin drilling. If so, it will be another stage of an apparent Chinese strategy of taking control of the South and East China seas by aggressively putting down hard infrastructure that serve as territorial markers.

Such territorial adventurism doesn’t unnerve only Singapore. Nations closer to Ukraine are worried that they could be the next victims of the Russian playbook.

Latvia, with a 25% Russian-speaking population, is one of them. Kazakhstan, with a similar Russian-speaking minority, is another. In both cases, the nightmare scenario is that Russia destabilizes and grabs control of choice bits of valuable territory. Time magazine reports that someone recently posted a petition on Facebook to annex the Latvian city of Daugavpils to Russia.

In a March speech to parliament, Singapore foreign minister K. Shanmugan said the lesson of Ukraine is that “international guarantees count for nothing. You have to be able to defend yourself.” That is easier said than done.

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