U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s June 2023 visit to China was a bid to normalize bilateral relations and re-establish regular channels of communication between the U.S. and China. Southeast Asian countries—which share close ties to both superpowers—are paying particularly close attention to whether the visit signals a turn in U.S.-China relations.

Dr. Kanti Bajpai, vice dean and professor of international relations at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy based at the National University of Singapore, joins the National Committee to provide a Southeast Asian perspective on what Singapore and the broader region are expecting from the U.S.-China relationship moving forward.

Kanti Bajpai

Kanti Bajpai is a professor of international relations at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.

Before coming to the LKY School, Kanti was Professor of International Politics, Jawaharlal Nehru University and Professor in the Politics and International Relations of South Asia, Oxford University. From 2003 to 2009, he was Headmaster, The Doon School, India. He taught at the Maharajah Sayajirao University of Baroda, and has held visiting appointments at Wesleyan University and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Kanti has held visiting appointments at the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace, Notre Dame University, the Brookings Institution, and the Australian Defence Force Academy. He was also Distinguished Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.

Kanti’s most recent book was India Versus China: Why They Are Not Friends (Juggernaut 2021). He is currently working on a book on India’s grand strategy.


Kanti Bajpai: My name is Kanti Bajpai, and I’m a professor of international relations at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, which is part of the National University of Singapore. 

What are the reactions in Southeast Asia to Secretary Blinken’s visit to China? 

Kanti Bajpai: I think in Southeast Asia, the reaction to Blinken’s visit to China is one of some relief. It suggests that there are lines of communication open between the two superpowers. Southeast Asia is very concerned about having to make a choice, a strategic choice, between the United States and China. And so this suggests that the two are prepared to reopen channels of communication and hopefully stabilize the military and diplomatic environment in this region, the larger region of East Asia, which is important for Southeast Asia as well. 

So I think, you know, overall, the messaging that’s come out of that meeting is that they’re trying to resume business within some limits, and that’s good for Southeast Asia. 

How do Southeast Asian countries want the U.S.-China relationship to progress? 

Kanti Bajpai: There’s cautious optimism, and the caution is that this might be a one-off, the meeting between Blinken and counterparts. When Secretary [Lloyd] Austin was in Singapore for the Shangri-La Dialogue, for instance, his Chinese counterpart refused to meet him. So that was almost simultaneous—it was a few days before Blinken went to China.

So, you know, there are contrary trends there, obviously. Blinken is welcome in Beijing, but Austin is not welcome to speak to a Chinese counterpart here in on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue. The Americans want to resume a more businesslike relationship, but are continuing to restrict Chinese access to technology. They’re stitching up relationships with a whole bunch of allies and partners who are in a position to deliver technology such as semiconductors and so on to China. So that’s another contradiction.  

Engaging in the dialogue in Beijing at a strategic military level, but then continuing to prosecute the competition at the economic level. And that bears on Southeast Asia because perhaps in the short term, the problem for Southeast Asians immediately is that supply chains being disrupted because of competition between the United States and China and de-risking, decoupling, all of that, you know, has implications for Southeast Asian businesses and economic decision-making. 

So, you know, Southeast Asians are happy to see the resumption of some dialogue at the at the big grand strategic level, but they also want to see what’s in the mix going forward on the economic relationship between the U.S. and China. In a day-to-day sense, you know, that’s more pertinent than, say, you know, a conflagration over Taiwan. And so that’s why I say cautious optimism. Great that they’re talking to each other, but, you know, the real rubber hits the road on economics here. So let’s see how that progresses.  

Where does Singapore hope for U.S.-China cooperation? 

Kanti Bajpai: I think Singapore has been pretty clear where it wants U.S.-China cooperation. Obviously, in the military security realm, one of the nightmares for Singapore and others is a conflict over Taiwan which would draw the region in, or at least there’s a very big fear that it would. Take, for example, the U.S.-Singapore military-security relationship. Would the Americans activate it, and ask for port facilities or intelligence sharing or even some kind of naval escort or R&R (rest and recuperation), and repair and maintenance and so on, in the instance of a conflict over Taiwan?  

And if they do ask, what is Singapore going to do, given that it has quite a strong relationship with China? And of course, we have to worry about in Singapore about the internal realm as well. I mean, this is a country of 70% or so ethnic Chinese. So there’s a kind of internal political social factor that the Singapore government would have to take into account. So, I think certainly a conflict in Taiwan, that’s probably the biggest worry.

The South China Sea these days is relatively stable, so I don’t think that’s such a great worry that there would be a conflict there. And in any case, the Americans are far more agnostic about what they would do in the case of a South China Sea problem, whereas I think it’s pretty clear that they would have to take some military action in the case of a Taiwan invasion or conflict. So I think the first very big problem for Singapore is what do they do in response to American requests over a Taiwan conflict.  

But the other thing is, and this is, again, the bread-and-butter issue, and that’s the economics: supply chain disruption, technology spigots being turned off, technology denials, the pressures coming either from the Chinese side or the American side on who’s technology and standards to adopt in, say, internet protocols or 5G and 6G and so on. I mean, these are very real concerns here. The economic issues are very central for all Southeast Asians, but particularly for small Singapore, which must be economically integrated and connected, not just to its regional partners, but to the United States and China particularly. So I think, you know, those are the two areas where Singapore would definitely want some repairing of relationships and a kind of normalization. 

I think the broader issue for Singapore would be kind of normalization also of people-to-people [relationships] and so on, in the hope that that will condition the overall U.S.-China relationship and not make it awkward for Chinese and Americans to visit each other. They often transit through Singapore, and they have subsidiaries here. And it just makes it awkward when visas and things become very difficult, and there’s a breakdown in, say, university cooperation. We’re right here at the Lee Kuan Yew School—if American academics who work with Singapore counterparts and so on can’t go to China, or the reverse, Chinese academic who can’t get to America or work in projects where American rules may apply on intellectual sharing, then that makes it awkward for Singapore academics and universities, I think. So these are at least three areas where I think Singapore would be quite concerned and would want a rapprochement or an easing of tensions.