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SINGAPORE — Even as the rivalry between the United States and China intensifies, the goal of the US is not for smaller nations to pick a side, but to promote a level playing field for all nations and a rules-based order, said Stephanie Syptak-Ramnath, the top American diplomat in Singapore.
“The United States is not asking anyone to take a side with the US, or take a side against China...From an American perspective, we understand the importance that China plays not only in this region, but throughout the world.”
“What we are asking our partners and friends to say is: what kind of world do you want to live in? Do you want to live in a world of basic international rules and law, and do you want a place where you are able to choose for yourself what your own destiny is?” said Syptak-Ramnath, the charge d’affaires (CDA) at the US embassy.
“Because that’s what the United States wants. We want to have a level playing field for countries to be able to decide what’s in their best interests, and for companies to be able to do business and make the choices necessary to be successful.”
Addressing reporters on Friday (12 July) before she leaves her post at the end of the month, Syptak-Ramnath was responding to a question about Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s recent remarks at the Shangri La Dialogue in June.
Lee said then that the sharp rivalry between the US and China has left smaller countries like Singapore in a position where their loyalty is questioned, and they might feel compelled to choose a side.
Strong bilateral ties
Syptak-Ramnath stressed the strength of bilateral ties between the US and Singapore, particularly in the security, economic and people-to-people spheres.
Singapore hosted the Trump-Kim summit last year at the request of the US, while top government officials such as President Donald Trump, Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have all visited the city-state in the past three years.
In addition, 54 senators and congressmen have made their way here in the same period, while PM Lee also visited the US in 2016 and 2017.
Meanwhile, direct investment from the US into Singapore to date stands at US$244 billion, far more than any other country, according to data from the US embassy.
Singapore is also the second largest Asian investor in the US after Japan, while American companies employ more than 200,000 people in Singapore, the data showed.
Singapore has a highly responsive government
Syptak-Ramnath was also asked if Singapore might benefit from having a more vigorous opposition.
“I think the Singaporean system is different…than almost any system in the world, because Singapore is such a unique country,” said the career diplomat of 26 years.
“We leave it to the Singaporean citizens to decide how they want their government to function.”
Stressing that this was her personal view, she added, “What I admire about the PAP is their constant polling of the Singaporean population. They do monthly public opinion polling. They’re very attuned to what the population is looking for….I see a government that is very responsive to what the population is asking of them.”
A binary choice?
Dr Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the East-West Centre, told Yahoo News Singapore that he concurred with Syptak-Ramnath’s views. “Countries such as Singapore should think of the issue not as siding with the USA versus siding with China, but rather supporting the international norms and institutions that provide regional states the best opportunities to achieve security and prosperity.”
Dr Roy added that he did not expect small and medium powers in the region to ever face “an absolute, all-or-nothing choice” between the two big powers. “Rather they will make a large number of small choices that will accumulate over time, some reflecting China's influence and some America's influence. Gradually each country might move closer to one of the big powers without completely breaking away from the other.”
A CDA heads an embassy in the absence of the ambassador. Syptak-Ramnath has been the top US representative in Singapore since 2016, replacing former ambassador Kirk Wagar.
Wagar’s replacement has yet to be appointed.
In 2018, former deputy national security advisor K. T. McFarland was nominated by Trump as ambassador to Singapore. This was later withdrawn after her nomination was stalled in the US Senate.
Syptak-Ramnath will be replaced by Rafik Mansour, who is currently the CDA at the US embassy in Yerevan, Armenia.