The current Russo-Turkish standoff has echoes in the Crimean War and is also a harbinger of Singapore’s role in the Asia-Pacific.
Recently, tensions have increased between Russia and Turkey due to the latter’s downing of a Russian Su-24 warplane near the Syrian-Turkish border. Subsequent economic sanctions imposed by Russia on Turkey and their ramifications on prospective energy projects between the two have also increased the hostility between the two states.
However, the larger picture entails one of outside powers leveraging a key city’s (or city-state’s) geostrategic location astride bodies of water in order to contain a local land power’s ambitions. The current Russo-Turkish standoff has echoes in the Crimean War and is also a harbinger of Singapore’s role in the Asia-Pacific.
Crimean Shadows and Neutrality’s Death
Through its possession of Constantinople in the Crimean War, Turkey played a critical role in allowing or denying ships from the Black Sea into the Mediterranean Sea and vice-versa through the Bosporous and Dardanelles Straits.
The United Kingdom (U.K.) wanted to ensure access of its ships (civilian and military) to the Black Sea, while denying access to those of its rival, Russia, to the Mediterranean. At the time, the U.K. wanted to protect the crown jewel of its Empire, India, from Russian ambitions. Last, but certainly not least, Constantinople was one of the intersection point in terms of influence between Russia and Turkey, Crimea being another.
Despite their historic rivalry, Russia and Turkey had actually come to a modus vivendi of sorts. The new animosities between the two, however, have made Russia realize that it can not completely count on Turkish neutrality during Russia’s conflict with the West over Ukraine.
This situation is given added poignancy due to the The Montreux Convention of 1936, which regulates Turkish control over naval traffic between the Black and Mediterranean Seas and which highlighted Turkey’s usefulness to NATO during the Cold War. Russia has already stated that it will regard any attempt by Turkey to use the Convention to restrict Russian traffic to the Mediterranean Sea as an act of war.
Which Lion Will Rule “The Lion City”?
Singapore is going to be even more crucial to the 21st century than Constantinople was during the last two centuries. This is because Southeast Asia historically has been at the intersection of Chinese and Indian influence, economically, politically, and culturally. This extends to the multitude of Overseas Chinese and Non-Resident Indian (NRI) communities present in practically all Southeast Asian states.
Indonesia may technically have the largest military of all Southeast Asian countries, however Singapore is the region’s economic heart and unofficial capital, with former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew even playing host to Deng Xiaoping on more than one occasion. At the time China was eager to learn other countries’ economic development strategies and apply them to itself.
Similar to Constantinople and its utility to local and external powers, Singapore sits astride the Strait of Malacca which connects the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. Given the fact that the world is significantly more globalized than two centuries ago and given Singapore’s location between oceans, not just seas, the city-state manages to have outsized economic influence despite its tiny size. Southeast Asia is also home to the ASEAN Regional Forum, the region’s only security-related forum.
Singapore’s location near the Strait of Malacca is of prime importance to China and its “Malacca Dilemma”. China, of course, is concerned with any U.S. overtures to states in the region which may restrict energy flows from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. Because of their locations, India and Singapore would play key roles in such a strategy.
As such, it’s in China’s interest to have these states bandwagon with it or, at the very least, claim neutrality between China and the U.S..
India, however, will not be bandwagoning with anyone anytime soon. In Chinese calculations, India not actively partnering with the U.S. to balance China would be optimal. Concerned with its own dilemma, namely China’s “String of Pearls” strategy to circumscribe Indian influence in its own region, India realizes the potential of Singapore to impede such an endeavor given its location.
Like most states in Southeast Asia, Singapore has been hedging between the U.S. and China, maintaining a neutrality of sorts. While China is the top trading partner of nearly all states in the region, most of these very same states look to a powerful external actor (the U.S.) to keep China in check militarily. However, Singapore has recently upgraded its security relationship with the U.S.
While the agreement may build upon previous security arrangements, it has the potential to alter the dynamic and balance in the region between the U.S., China, and India. In Asia, foreign policy strategies have the potential to play out over centuries, if not millennia. Therefore, it’s crucial to recognize that controlling (or at the very least, influencing) Singapore gives the particular player control of the center of the Asia-Pacific chessboard.