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SOME IMPORTANT FRIENDS
- Why Washington listens when Singapore’s minister for trade talks about India

One Singaporean has done more for India in the United States of America in the last one month than the collective efforts of a succession of business delegations, officials and ministers from New Delhi in the last one year. Surprising' Perhaps, considering that Indians are frequently patting their own backs on how well they have sold their country’s reform programme in the US, and exaggerating the trickle of American investment into India as if it represents a ringing endorsement of India’s position and importance as an emerging market and a promising destination for investment. The crème de la crème of America’s entrepreneurial class, assembled at the US chamber of commerce in Washington late last month, was mildly surprised that an address by George Yeo, Singapore’s minister for trade and industry, was sprinkled with references to India.

The audience had expected Yeo to talk about China, about Iraq, of course, having supported the American action against Saddam Hussein, and about SARS too, naturally. The main theme of his speech was to have been Singapore’s free trade agreement with the US, which was then about to be signed between the president, George W. Bush, and the prime minister, Goh Chok Tong. But India! The talk about India was a pleasant surprise to most people in the audience. Yeo talked about India in every major segment of his speech. “In Asia, India as an emerging power, is determined not to be left behind by China”, Yeo told American chief executive officers.

When it came to terrorism, Yeo described the terrorist threat faced by India as persuasively as L.K. Advani or Brajesh Mishra could have put it to the Americans. Moreover, he asserted the right of India and other countries to take a view of Islam that is at variance with that of America. “The US, the European Union, Russia, China and India all face the problem of jihadi terrorism and are united against that common enemy. Beyond this narrowly defined threat, however, they adopt different postures towards the world of Islam. Each has its own historical experiences and each sees a different set of problems in its encounter with Islamic civilization. We cannot expect them to share with the US the same views on how best to win the peace in Iraq and the Middle East, including the question of Palestine”, Yeo said.

Looking into the crystal ball on the subject of America’s future role in southeast Asia, he envisioned both India and China establishing free trade areas with the entire Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 10 years and wanted the US to harness the opportunities that this offered. “In the coming years, the growth of the Chinese and Indian economies will bring prosperity to southeast Asia”, Yeo asserted. It was not as if Singapore saw everything about India as an unmixed blessing. He cautioned that “both China and India are also nuclear powers and will one day have blue water navies. It is, therefore, more comfortable for all of us in southeast Asia if the US is also in the region. For the US, ASEAN is a key strategic region astride some of the most important sea-lanes in the world”.

Naturally, two days after his speech, when Yeo addressed a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, he was asked questions about India. Yeo revealed that at the first summit meeting between the prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and ASEAN leaders in Phnom Penh in November last year, India had proposed a free trade agreement covering the entire southeast Asian region in a decade. He said that India’s relations with Singapore were predicated partly on the value that New Delhi attached to Singapore becoming a facility like Hong Kong and India’s bridge to the rest of Asia.

Yeo predicted that “Shanghai will become the New York of a new China...Hong Kong sees its destiny tied to the Pearl River Delta (which) now accounts for 40 per cent of China’s total exports...Singapore is fast becoming the London of a new Asia serving a multi-national Asian hinterland as well as a vital facility for American, European and Australian companies in both manufacturing and services”.

Some pundits in India will dismiss the importance of Singapore’s endorsement of India’s regional and global role, its economic potential and its place in today’s mantra of diplomacy, namely the global fight against terrorism. India, they will argue, is a democracy, it has a billion people and has its place reserved in the sun. Singapore is a tiny entrepôt, a mere city-state whose fortunes depend on the destinies of bigger countries.

But that is precisely where these self-appointed pundits are dead wrong. Singapore represents one of the bigg- est success stories in diplomatic and official Washington in the new century, especially after the events of September 11 changed the course of international diplomacy. When Singapore and the US inked their FTA earlier this month, the southeast Asian city-state actually became the first country with which the US has a truly meaningful FTA. The US has an institutionalized north American free trade area, which incorporates both Mexico and Canada.

The US has FTAs with both Israel and Jordan, but no one recognizes these as economic agreements, only as political ones. So the agreement between the US and Singapore is really the first FTA which the US has signed with any country other than its immediate neighbours — any country in the whole of Asia at any rate.

Singapore is the 11th largest trading partner of the US. Bilateral US-Singapore trade exceeds US trade with all its current and potential FTA partners outside of the NAFTA. That means Israel, Jordan, Chile, central America, Morocco and Australia. Moreover, Singapore is the second largest Asian investor in the US, its cumulative investments in America being more than twice that of South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Along with Singapore this month, Chile was to have signed an FTA with the US. But Chile’s unwillingness to compromise with the US on Iraq in the United Nations security council — of which Chile is a member — pushed Singapore ahead in the race for the FTA. So, when Singapore’s leaders say something in Washington, the Americans sit up and listen. American businessmen have a lot of gripe about India. Some of it is fair criticism, but for the most part it is born out of their inflexibility to the ways of doing business in India. In recent years, they have marvelled at the way Singaporeans or Koreans have been able to do in India what Americans have only dreamed of. Many American businesses are looking for advice from those who have been successful in the Indian market.

Therefore, everything that Yeo said about India in his various addresses across the US will have an impact more far-reaching than anything that the Indian themselves could have said. They are equivalent to certificates issued by independent poll observers about the fairness of elections in many countries. Yeo’s credentials for this task are impeccable. A graduate of Cambridge University and Harvard Business School, he rose to be brigadier-general in Singapore’s air force before going into politics to become a member of parliament and lat- er minister of state for foreign affairs.

It was as minister of state in the foreign office that Yeo made an exploratory trip to India in 1992, foreshadowing an attempt to restructure the city- state’s ties with India which have been stagnating for more than a decade. Yeo has a vivid recollection of that trip. In Washington last month, he recalled a dinner at Hyderabad House in the Indian capital where he found a refreshing change among India’s politicians in his counterpart — Salman Khurshid, who was P.V. Narasimha Rao’s minister of state for foreign affairs.

Others who had a feel for India helped in the process as well. For instance, a young diplomat, Bernard Baker, who was then Singapore’s deputy high commissioner in India. Baker’s father was Singapore’s first high commissioner in New Delhi when the young Baker grew up and went to school in India. Yeo’s visit started a process which was as important to India’s economic reform as French support for the 1998 nuclear tests was to New Delhi’s new look in the new millennium as an emerging global power. Lee Kuan Yew, who is said to have sworn once that he would never visit India because he was so disappointed by wasted opportunities by the Indians, subsequently came to New Delhi on one of the most successful visits by any foreign leader.

It is a relationship which continues to grow as demonstrated by Goh Chok Tong’s journey to India in April of which Yeo was a part, as minister for trade and industry. This is why he is listened to in Washington with respect when he speaks about India, and also why India should see its friends in other countries for their true worth.

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