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Should small states act like small states? (JMD quoted in Straits Times)

The diplomatic crisis faced by Qatar shows that however savvy small states may be, their size puts them at a disadvantage should they not see eye to eye with bigger powers. Insight looks at what small states can and should do in such a situation, and whether there are lessons for Singapore.

Despite its population of 2.6 million, the oil-rich Gulf state of Qatar punches above its weight on the global stage.

But over the years, Qatar's insistence on maintaining ties with Iran has ruffled the feathers of larger neighbours, which have also accused it of supporting terrorism - something Qatar roundly rejects.

Tensions came to a head last month as nine Arab countries led by Saudi Arabia severed ties with Qatar and closed borders and airspace to Qatari aircraft and ships.

Last week, the bloc issued Qatar a list of 13 demands that must be met for the blockade to end, including reducing diplomatic ties with Iran and restricting who it can grant citizenship to, which analysts say would undermine its sovereignty.

The diplomatic crisis highlights that however savvy small states are, they are still at a disadvantage if big states decide to go from being allies to being against them.

The episode caught the attention of top former and current diplomats in Singapore, who drew parallels between Qatar and Singapore.

Small states, large networks

The world's powerhouses have the Group of 20 (G-20) forum to discuss global economic issues, and a number of its smaller nations have a club of their own: the Global Governance Group (3G).

The informal group of 30 small and medium-sized countries from all continents was convened by Singapore in 2009. The G-20 had then been revived to tackle the global financial crisis, having been created as a forum for financial stability issues in the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis.

"Smaller but fairly robust economies like Singapore were concerned with the rather unilateral manner in which the G-20 was acting," recounted Singapore's then-Permanent Representative to the United Nations Vanu Gopala Menon in the book titled 50 Years of Singapore and the United Nations.

The 3G was thus formed to influence the G-20 to take into account the interests of smaller countries affected by its decisions. The group is why Singapore has regularly been invited to participate in G-20 meetings as an observer, including the latest G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany.

As German Chancellor Angela Merkel noted at a joint press conference after meeting Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Thursday: "As the chair of the Global Governance Group, Singapore works very much to remind us of the interests of smaller countries and medium- sized countries."

Singapore also founded the Forum of Small States at the UN in 1992 as a platform to band together on common interests like environmental concerns. Representatives of its 107 members meet a few times a year to discuss issues of concern to small states.

The two groups show how Singapore amplifies its voice and advances its interests by banding together with other small states.

In this way, larger players are more likely to sit up and take note of others' views on global issues.

Says Associate Professor Alan Chong of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies: "We call ourselves small... but that does not mean we cannot talk to great powers as an equal. Because of the creative energies of our diplomats, we have become an outsized player."

Charissa Yong

Some, such as former permanent representative to the United Nations Kishore Mahbubani, said Qatar's troubles showed that small states should always behave like small states and be wary of getting entangled in affairs beyond their borders.

But others, such as retired Permanent Secretary for Foreign Affairs Bilahari Kausikan publicly disagreed, backed by former foreign minister K. Shanmugam, who is now Home Affairs and Law Minister.

In newspaper commentaries and Facebook posts, they advocated the approach of not being reckless, but also not hesitating to stand up for cherished principles.

Insight examines the thorny question of what small states should do when bigger powers do not see eye to eye with them. And what if the demands of bigger countries hurt a small state's core interests?


The rare public debate within the establishment on small state diplomacy was not purely theoretical.

Closer to home, an international arbitration court ruled last year in favour of the Philippines, striking down China's claims to the South China Sea - almost all of which overlap with other countries'.

Singapore was careful to state that it did not take a position, but reiterated its support for the peaceful resolution of disputes in accordance with international law.

Amid some rumblings of disquiet from Chinese officials, local critics wondered - out loud - if Singapore should have just kept quiet.

Said Professor Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy: "In the jungle, no small animal would stand in front of a charging elephant, no matter who has the right of way, so long as the elephant is not charging over the small animal's home territory."

Such discretion is the lot of small states, he said, which others interpreted as advocating for laying low and staying out of trouble.

But to do so would be to surrender one's sovereignty and set a dangerous precedent, said Mr Bilahari.

He countered with an animal metaphor of his own, saying: "Singapore did not survive and prosper by being anybody's tame poodle." He added: "I don't think anyone respects a running dog."

Observers say the debate is about the amount of room for manoeuvrability that small states have.

Middle East expert James Dorsey from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) says: "The principle that international relations have developed to a degree in which size does not always matter, and that if you're small you can stand up to the big guy, is not necessarily true."

On the one hand, he says, there is the principle that all states irrespective of size are sovereign and have the right to chart their own course as long as they act within internationally accepted norms and laws.

On the other hand, they also have the ability to maintain relationships with other countries, he adds.

The idea that Singapore should trim its behaviour to something expected of small states goes against a key tenet of its foreign policy, says RSIS associate professor Alan Chong.

Founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and the first foreign minister S. Rajaratnam were of the view that Singapore could excel only if it was extraordinary and must try not to be just another small state.

Says Dr Chong: "We made waves disproportionate to the size of Singapore because we knew how to read the situation correctly and convert our vulnerability to strengths. This is something perhaps you cannot treat as analogous to Qatar."

How small states play their hand, and the neighbourhood they are in, both matter.

While Singapore and its neighbours are all part of Asean, the Gulf Cooperation Council, which Qatar is a part of, is a lot more fragmented along sectarian lines.

Says Dr Chong: "If we have a quarrel with one or two members of Asean, it's not likely that everyone else will agree with the other two."

He adds that another way Qatar did not play its cards right was in the leeway it gave Al Jazeera, its state-funded broadcaster.

The Saudi-led blockade is demanding that Al Jazeera be shut down, as part of its ultimatum to Qatar if the diplomatic crisis is to end.

While Singapore's broadcast media "will not go all out to stoke the emotions of the public in a foreign country, Al Jazeera is like all guns blazing on everybody in the Middle East", says Dr Chong.

But discretion should not preclude taking a public stand on issues that will rebound on Singapore, say observers and diplomats.

Ambassador-at-Large Ong Keng Yong stressed in a commentary in The Straits Times last week that Singapore has always adopted a friendly approach to friendly states, and has always been sensitive in managing foreign policy.

"We do not go around looking for trouble. But when necessary, Singapore has stood up to pressure from other states when its interests were at stake," said Mr Ong, who was Singapore's High Commissioner to Malaysia from 2011 to 2014.

Yielding would also set a dangerous precedent, both in bilateral relationships and international law.

As Mr Shanmugam said in a Facebook post last week, "once you allow yourself to be bullied, then you will continue to be bullied".

Dr Chong points out that international law is often advanced by court cases based on precedents.

He says: "If China claims the islands based on its history, and no one raises a hoot, what does it mean? Any great power can just move in and occupy all the coastal areas it wants.

"In this sense, it does not seem advantageous to be discreet. International law is such that you don't want bad precedents to be set."


When push comes to shove, small states should stand up for their core interests. But the idea is for push not to come to shove in the first place, say analysts.

"You should not be placed in a position where all the great powers, or all the regional powers, are arrayed against you," says Dr Chong.

"Qatar was trying to be an outsized player, but it didn't read the winds correctly. You cannot allow this nightmare combination to build up over time."

As part of its strategy, Singapore makes as many friends as it can and invests in international institutions.

Says Dr Dorsey: "Having friends is crucial. In times of need, having friends is even more important. Small states will want to bolster their position by having friends," Observers unanimously agree on the importance of Asean and the United Nations - including Prof Mahbubani who credited the UN Charter with the sharp drop in small states being invaded and occupied. "The UN is, therefore, the best friend of small states like Singapore," he wrote.

Such institutions also promote peace and security, which underpin economic growth and prosperity, a point noted by Mr Ong.

Contributions to these groups build up goodwill over time so that in the event of a crisis, countries are more likely to be sympathetic to Singapore, says Dr Chong.

But for small states, they may have no choice but to stand up to a larger power when it is 'charging over its home territory', or core interests.

Says Dr Dorsey: "The stakes are clear: whether or not small states are able to chart their own course. And if a state surrenders that right, then it has essentially surrendered its independence."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 09, 2017, with the headline 'Should small states act like small states?'. Print Edition | Subscribe

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