Singapore and the United States: Why a relationship upgrade remains unlikely in 2024

Secretary Blinken Hosts a Press Availability With Singaporean Foreign Minister Balakrishnan 52979022846

“Singapore is for the United States, a true partner.”

So said United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a June 16, 2023 joint press meeting with Singapore Foreign Minister Dr Vivian Balakrishnan at the U.S. State Department. The Singapore-U.S. relationship could be described as a “strategic partnership.” Alliances are formal agreements, while partnerships are less formal, don’t involve treaties, and may be short-term between countries. However, a formal relationship upgrade from partnership to alliance between the two countries has not materialized since the aforementioned event. And it is unlikely to happen in the immediate future either, possibly because Singapore fears an alliance with the U.S. could violate its neutral political image and therefore heighten tensions with China. 

Singapore – U.S. Ties: An Overview

Military exchanges and U.S. Navy visits to Singapore exemplify the two nations’ ongoing strategic partnership. The roots of this relationship date back to the 1960s, when Singapore backed American involvement in the Vietnam War in exchange for the United States agreeing to safeguard its security and economic interests in the wake of Britain’s impending withdrawal of troops from the island state1. The abrupt departure of British forces presented a number of serious problems to Singapore, a nation which sought to oppose communist influence and increase revenue to build an independent economy.

Today, bilateral defense ties between Singapore and the U.S. remain strong. This is evident in initiatives like the permanent export of over $26.3 billion worth of military components to Singapore by the U.S. from 2019 to 2021 under the Direct Commercial Sales (DCS) scheme, from which Singapore has reaped several economic benefits and has enhanced bilateral cooperation.  A 2021 U.S. Department of Defense fact sheet mentioned the country has become Singapore’s largest foreign investor, with approximately $270 billion in direct investments.

However, the history of Singapore-U.S. relations took an unexpected turn in 2003, when Singapore reportedly declined an offer from the U.S. to be designated a Major Non-NATO ally even though two of its Southeast Asian neighbors – the Philippines and Thailand – both accepted.2 Despite strong temptations for Singapore to upgrade its diplomatic relationship with the world’s largest economy, this refusal occurred amidst tumultuous global circumstances that would gravely affect the island state. The Iraq War severely disrupted Singapore’s economy. The country’s economy contracted in the second quarter at an annual rate of 11.8 percent, and national unemployment increased to 4.5 percent in mid-2003. Later that year, the SARS pandemic infected 238 people and claimed 33 lives in Singapore, exposing weaknesses in the nation’s health care and epidemiological surveillance system.3 

More than twenty years on, the world is once more in a volatile situation from an armed conflict and health emergency – namely Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the Coronavirus pandemic. The rise of an assertive China has strained its relations with the U.S. and raised Indo-Pacific regional tensions. Despite a tumultuous geopolitical climate and Singapore Foreign Minister Dr Balakrishnan’s 2023 meeting with Secretary Blinken to reaffirm strong Singapore–U.S. ties, Singapore has yet to formally declare an upgrade of its relationship with the U.S. to an alliance.

Hedging Policy

Instead, Singapore has chosen to hedge its foreign policy – not siding with any powerful state nor trying to pick a winner given the unpredictability concerning power structures.4 When Singapore joined the U.S. and other Western bloc countries in sanctioning Russia over its invasion of Ukraine in a rare instance of departure from its hedging policy, Russia designated Singapore as an “unfriendly country.” Subsequently, all Russian corporate deals with Singaporean companies must now be granted permission by the Russian government before proceeding.

Singapore clarified its sanctions were a matter of upholding United Nations charter principles concerning the rights of states’ existence. However, actions like these may further shape the international community’s perceptions that Singapore is within the U.S. sphere of influence. It would be prudent for Singapore’s political leadership to continue its hedging policy if it sought to maintain credibility as a non-aligned state and avoid any potential backlash from states that claim Singapore violates its own principles.

The Chinese Connection

Another essential factor for Singapore not upgrading its relationship with the U.S. is the island state’s sensitivities with China. The latest census of population by Singapore’s Department of Statistics in 2020 revealed 3 million ethnic Chinese residents in the country (or 74.3 percent of Singapore’s total population of 5.69 million) that year. A Pew Research Center survey the following year found that 64 percent of Singapore’s population held a favorable view of China. Singapore has been China’s largest foreign investor since 1997, and China has been Singapore’s biggest trade partner since 2013.5 China has also adopted an increasingly aggressive foreign policy and has had strained relations with the U.S. in recent years, including military drills encircling Taiwan after President Tsai Ing-wen visited the U.S. in 2023.

Therefore, it could be unwise for Singapore to formally upgrade its relationship with the U.S. to an alliance. China would have misgivings that Singapore is in the U.S. sphere of influence and might reduce or suspend trade relations with Singapore. This could cause the island state significant economic losses. Singaporeans who view China positively could perceive the Singapore government as violating non-alignment principles and being pro-U.S. This would decrease approval ratings for Singapore’s political leadership. Singapore and the U.S. likely will keep their relationship as a partnership for the foreseeable future. 


It would be reasonable to assume Singapore and the U.S. would maintain strong ties and work together for Indo-Pacific regional security amidst the challenging geopolitical climate. The strategic partnership between both countries has served Singapore and the U.S. well. Singapore has earned itself a major security guarantor and prospered economically from its close relationship with the U.S., while the latter benefits from working with Singapore towards maintaining a favorable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region against an increasingly assertive China. Nevertheless, it is highly unlikely that Singapore upgrades its relationship with the U.S. to that of an alliance, especially amidst such a tumultuous geopolitical landscape and the looming threat of conflict outbreak between China and Taiwan. As a result of Singapore’s efforts to maintain global credibility as a politically neutral non-aligned state and protect its sensitive relations with China, the bilateral Singapore-U.S. relationship likely will stay a strategic partnership for the foreseeable future.


Featured/Headline Image Caption and Citation: Secretary Blinken meets with and participates in a joint press conference with Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan at the US Department of State in Washington on June 16, 2023 [State Department photo by Chuck Kennedy] | Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons

  1.  Heng Chee Chan, Singapore: The Politics of Survival 1965 – 1967 (Oxford University Press, 1971), 43. ↩︎
  2.  See Seng Tan, “America the Indispensable Power: Singapore’s Perspective of America as a Security Partner,” Asian Politics & Policy 8, no.1 (2016): 120. ↩︎
  3.  William Case, “SINGAPORE IN 2003: Another Tough Year,” Asian Survey 44, no. 1 (January/February 2004): 119. ↩︎
  4.  Cheng-Chwee Kuik, “The Essence of Hedging: Malaysia and Singapore’s Response to a Rising China,” Contemporary Southeast Asia: A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs 30, no. 2 (2008): 165. ↩︎
  5.  Liang Fook Lye, “Singapore-China Relations: Building Substantive Ties amidst Challenges,” Southeast Asian Affairs (2018): 326. ↩︎


Shang is a student at the National University of Singapore (Class of 2024) pursuing a Bachelor of Social Science with a major in political science. Shang is a member of the YRIS international correspondents program in the 2023-2024 cohort. He is a student member at the International Institute of Strategic Studies and has interned at the Singapore International Foundation and the Singapore Early Childhood Development Agency.