Politically, Singapore regularly punches above its weight. The city state was a founding member of ASEAN, the powerful grouping of south-east Asian nations including Indonesia and the Philippines, and since 2010 has often been invited to participate in G20 events.
CNN contacted Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan for this story but he didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The country’s power doesn’t just come from its wealth but also from the powerful friendships it has made with the world’s two largest superpowers.
Singapore has close historic and military ties to the United States, forged during the Cold War when former leader Lee Kuan Yew took a firm stand against communism in South East Asia.
“When the United States was fighting the Vietnam war, Singapore offered a place for US troops to come for their vacation, sometimes dock their ships and refuel their aircraft,” Chong Ja Ian, associate professor at National University of Singapore’s Department of Political Science, said.
Despite Lee’s firm stance against communism, Singapore was also quick to embrace China once it began to open up economically in the 1980s under then-paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.
“Singapore seized the opportunity for working with the Chinese … in terms of friendship it blossomed very quickly, not just because of of the economic opportunities but linguistic similarities that made it a bit easier for them to enter the Chinese market earlier,” Chong said.
“It’s very natural … Singapore is a very important international trade and finance center not only in China but also for other countries (in the region),” he said.
But in the past year, amid the rise of both Trump and an assertive Beijing, Singapore’s position has become less simple.
“China sees Singapore as being too close to America and there’s a sense in which that’s correct,” said Michael Barr, associate professor of International Relations at Adelaide’s Flinders University and author of “The Ruling Elite of Singapore.”
Barr said Singapore is uncomfortable with the unpredictability of President Trump, whose country the Lion State still relies heavily on for their ongoing security.
“This is their dilemma. There is not a lot they can do about pulling back from America … (but) they know full well that in the long term they have to orient towards China,” he said.
‘Cranky bear in a small cave’
As with so much political wrangling in South East Asia, Singapore’s problems began with the South China Sea.
But the freeze showed China is fully willing to exercise its ever-growing regional and international power against countries who go against its interests.
“China has reached the stage … where they feel that they can dictate to smaller powers the relationship they will have with China, and if they wish to exercise levels of independence then China will decide how far they can go,” Barr said.
“It will be more and more like living with a cranky bear in a small cave.”
The age of Trump
In the past, Singapore’s strong security alliance with the United States helped temper concerns regarding China.
But that’s no longer the case. “No one (in Asia) really knows what’s happening in Washington,” explained Brown.
“Singapore are very aware they can’t make any assumptions now, their assumption for the past 50 years is that keep close to the Americans no matter what. But now the big boys are acting in a very unpredictable way.”
“Trump on his own has the capacity to take away any good and sensible reason for Singapore and most of Asia to maintain relations with the US,” Barr said.
“If he seriously goes down the path of closing down free trade, putting up obstacles, being an unreliable ally … I can see not just Singapore but the whole of South East Asia lining up with China.”
‘Singapore is not unique’
Singapore is not alone in considering what Asia’s future will look like with a dominant China and an inward-looking United States.
“Philippines, Malaysia, all across the region there’s been a real push (by Beijing),” Brown said. “Singapore is not unique, it’s just because Singapore’s been so adept at balancing (both sides).”
One of the first signs of a closer relationship between Singapore and Beijing would be any changes to their military exercises with Taiwan, a sensitive topic between the two countries, as China views it as a breakaway province.
“I think there is an awareness that at the end of the day the relationship with China is so much more important than anything else, in terms of economics, so they might think of this as something of a tradeoff,” Brown said.
But already Singapore’s rhetoric has begun to change. In his Singapore National Day speech in 2016, Prime Minister Lee’s language had come a long way from his 2010 interview, where he said China could never replace the US.
“We are friends with both America and with China … Both believe the Pacific is vast enough to accommodate both powers and President Xi said recently that America and China should “cultivate common circles of friends,” he told his countrymen.
“That is precisely what Singapore’s trying to do.”