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How Singapore Stay Neutral

This video is sponsored by CuriosityStream. Watch thousands of great documentaries andthe early, ad-free, and extended version of videos like this one on Nebula for just $15bucks a year. 2017 was an especially turbulent year forNorth Korea, even by its already aggressive standards. In February, Kim Jong-Un’s older half-brotherKim Jong-Nam was assassinated in Malaysia. During the summer, it accomplished its long-awaitednuclear goal of firing an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching theU.S. mainland. With this new firepower, it threatened toattack the American territory Guam, which the U.S. countered with its own threat ofwar.

The U.N. Security Council passed more severesanctions, and the U.S. re-added North Korea to its State Sponsors of Terrorism list, joiningIran, Sudan, and Syria, nine years after being removed. Then, in early 2018, tensions began de-escalating. The world sighed a deep breath of relief asNorth Korea agreed to send athletes to the South Korean Winter Olympic games, one ofa series of actions intended to signal its goodwill. And although this cycle of rising tensionsfollowed by diplomatic charm was both familiar and expected, there was real hope that, thistime, because North Korea had finally achieved its nuclear security guarantee, it would genuinelybe motivated to make and stick to a deal. Kim Jong-Un personally invited Donald Trumpto a meeting, then-director of the CIA Mike Pompeo secretly flew to Pyongyang for preliminaryarrangements, and after several near-cancellations, both sides agreed to a summit. This would be the first-ever meeting betweena sitting American and North Korean leader. The decision to meet, however, was only thefirst in a long chain of private negotiations which would take place in the weeks leadingup to the event and would significantly impact its outcome. One such important detail was the locationof this historic meeting, which, in many ways, would set the tone of everything to come. Initially, five places were rumored to bein consideration. U.S. officials mentioned Vietnam, Thailand,Switzerland, Sweden, and Singapore, specifically. At first glance, all of these choices seemlike strong candidates, and the case could easily be made for each of them. Sweden, for example, was the first Westernnation to establish an embassy in Pyongyang, who it has maintained unusually strong diplomaticties with.

The U.S., which does not have an embassy inNorth Korea, frequently works with and through the Swedish embassy acting as an intermediary. Switzerland, where Kim Jong-Un received hischildhood education, was also a prime contender. Europe, however, had a natural disadvantagein that it’s simply too far. Between taking office and that point in time,Kim had visited only two countries – China and South Korea, on three trips, during whichhe was, at most, only 700 kilometers or 400 miles from his home country. Another option, Mongolia, was within reachof Kim Jong-Un’s state plane or armored train, but lacked the infrastructure necessaryto confidently guarantee a smooth-running event. Most importantly, though, the choice of locationcould not be seen as a concession by either side. Indeed, even holding the event would alreadybe perceived by some as legitimizing the rule of Kim Jong-Un. Therefore, the U.S. side would likely notagree to Pyongyang, Beijing, or Russia. The search was narrowed between either nearthe Joint Security Area on the Demilitarized Zone or Singapore – the latter of which tickedall the boxes and then some, and was finally agreed upon. Strangely, the small island city-state isconsidered ‘friendly territory’ by both sides, and would even be approved of by otherinterested parties like China, Russia, and Japan. This, on its own, is remarkable – that a nearbyAsian country would have no direct stake or interest in the dispute, beyond a peacefulresolution. Even more so that a country in the regionwould have strong diplomatic relations with both North Korea and the United States simultaneously. Singapore hosts a North Korean embassy, tradeda small number of goods with Pyongyang before sanctions were tightened, and, amazingly,allowed North Korean passport holders visa-free entry until 2016.

Practically speaking, it could also guaranteea summit without interruptions. Protests are allowed without police permissiononly in a single area of one public park, called the Speaker’s Corner. A Kim Jong-Un impersonator, in fact, was detainedand questioned after arriving from Australia. These same legal features which lead somevisitors to call Singapore ‘boring’ were precisely what made it so attractive, despitebeing relatively far, for Kim, and the event going incredibly smoothly. On June 10th at 8:20 pm, Air Force One landedat the jointly operated U.S. and Singapore Air Force Paya Lebar Air Base. Kim, on the other hand, arrived earlier thatafternoon at Singapore’s main international airport, before touring the downtown areain the evening – a sign of just how safe the young dictator felt. The Singaporean government, meanwhile, wasnot merely an observer. It held high-level meetings with both presidents,paid for the North Korean accommodation, and released an official logo for the event – promotingits reputation as a trusted, neutral third-party facilitator. This image has been carefully crafted overdecades. It also hosts the annual Shangri-La Dialogueand rotating summits of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. In 2015, Singapore was chosen for the no-less-historicor delicate meeting between chairman Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China and then-presidentof the Republic of China, or Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou. That event was so sensitive in nature thateven the linguistic terms used were carefully scrutinized. Because neither side recognizes the legitimacyof the other, officials negotiated their respective titles in advance. They would be addressed as the ‘Leader ofMainland China’ and ‘Leader of Taiwan’, and refer to each other only as ‘mister’in Mandarin. Here, too, Singapore is unusual in that itcarefully engages both sides of this heated geopolitical divide. Its military has trained with Taiwan sincethe 70s and is the only Southeast Asian country to share with it a bilateral free-trade agreement. Singapore’s long-standing, almost defaultstatus as a trusted intermediary makes it easy to forget just how unlikely this factis.

Having been forced into independence by itsexpulsion from the Federation of Malaysia in 1965, the new republic faced several potentiallyexistential threats. At about 700 square kilometers or 270 squaremiles, Singapore is about 1/4th the size of Rhode Island, has no large lakes or rivers,is devoid of natural resources, and is now home to around 5 and a half million people. Not only is it not predisposed to projectglobal power and relevance, but its small size and close proximity to much larger Malaysiaand Indonesia make even its continued existence challenging. And because of its strategic location on theStrait of Malacca, it even faces threats from non-state actors like pirates. These undesirable circumstances impressedon its early government the urgent necessity of making and keeping as many friends as possible. From those early days of independence, Singaporepositioned itself as the Switzerland of Asia – engaging with anyone who would accept itsfriendship.

But while Swiss neutrality is deliberatelystatic and unchanging, Singapore attempts to balance the relative influence of its powerfulallies – China and the United States. In addition to being its largest source offoreign investment, the U.S. is also a significant military partner. When the American military was ordered toleave the Philippines in the 90s, Singapore allowed it access to its Changi Naval Base- one of only a few piers in Asia deep enough for U.S. aircraft carriers to dock and resupply. American nuclear submarines, aircraft carriergroups, and spy planes regularly transit through Singapore on their way to conduct ‘freedomof navigation’ exercises in the South China Sea. This military cooperation agreement was renewedfor the second time in 2020, and, in another sign of its strong ties, the U.S. also soldSingapore twelve F-35 fighter jets. But while it engages with the U.S. very closely,it does not do so exclusively. Singapore is careful never to choose sides. For example, it never officially refers tothe U.S. as an ‘ally’, and uses the term ‘American facilities’, not ‘bases’. Likewise, it abstains from discussing sensitiveissues in China, including its controversial maritime claims. Singapore conducts military training exerciseswith the People’s Liberation Army, and China is its largest trading partner. Realistically, neither China nor the U.S.likely appreciate its close relations with the other, and occasionally attempt to tiltthe balance in their favor. When Singapore is tested, however, it almostalways remains disciplined in its neutrality. For example, in 2003, it turned down an offerto become an official non-NATO ally to the U.S. And in 2016, China impounded nine of its armoredmilitary vehicles in Hong Kong on their return journey from training in Taiwan – a clearreminder of its influence. For the most part, both sides appreciate thepredictability of this strategy, which has survived three Singaporean Prime Ministersand ten American Presidents – six of which were Republican, and four Democratic. For decades, Singapore has greatly benefittedfrom the economic rise of China, while not being beholden to it, thanks to its closemilitary engagement with the U.S. In not being forced to choose sides, it’sbenefited from both.

But as China has grown in size and influence,deteriorating its relations with the U.S., Singapore has remained small. The close personal relationship of its founder,Lee Kuan Yew, with China’s leadership is no more, and, once again, it must fight tosurvive. As the peaceful stability which enabled itsprosperity is replaced with more aggressive relations between its two non- ‘ally’allies, the cost of neutrality will only grow. In other words, one day Singapore may finallybe forced to choose a side. But until that day comes, it would like forboth sides to fear the outcome. Singapore’s natural dependence on othercountries has led it to pursue some unusual policies to ensure its security. For example, the Singaporean government hasconvinced its population to drink pee. Humorous as that sounds, it’s absolutelynot a joke. To find out what drinking pee has to do withSingapore’s national security, you can watch the extended version of this video which replacesthis ad, on our new streaming platform, Nebula. While these videos will continue being availablehere, there are some topics and tangents, like drinking pee that aren’t quite rightfor YouTube but I just can’t not mention. If you enjoy these videos, the best way towatch them is before they’re posted on YouTube, without ads, and with specially-made bonuscontent from your favorite creators like Wendover Productions, Real Engineering, and RealLifeLoreon Nebula. But it gets better because we’ve partneredwith CuriosityStream, where you can watch documentaries like Singapore’s Field of Dreams,which explains how the city built a stadium which can adapt to hold over 30 differentsports, and The Rise Of The Gulf, about the growth of oil cities like Dubai. You can get CuriosityStream AND Nebula forthe very affordable price of just $15 bucks a year.

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