Singapore’s Energy Policy in the Indo-Pacific Region

1. The geopolitical situation of the city state of Singapore also means that the city state needs a sophisticated energy policy to thrive in a geopolitically unstable world

Singapore was once a colony of the British Empire, and has inherited much of its legal traditions and social structures from the British Empire. Nevertheless, Singapore’s geographical location means that Singapore has also strong connections to other East Asian countries. China, in particular, has gained much influence in Singaporean society in recent years, as a large part of the population of the city-state has cultural and ethnic ties to Chinese civilization and culture. Furthermore, Singapore’s unique location has shaped the cultural mix that prevails in the city-state, because in Singapore, Indian, Southeast Asian or Malay and East Asian cultural elements are all mixed up, twisting the English language to make it sound more Singaporean. Singapore is directly connected to one of the world’s busiest waterways, sitting comfortably on the southern edge of the Malay peninsula, by the Strait of Malacca. This special location has historically led to major conflicts with the more rural neighbors that were closing in on the city state of Singapore, including Malaysia after Singapore withdrew from the Federation of Malaysia and after numerous conflicts. This inevitably led to Singapore focusing even more on maritime trade, and due to its size it had to find new ways to satisfy its hunger for energy. Because Singapore’s biggest problem is the population density of the city, and the size of Singapore itself. As a result, it is very difficult for Singapore to achieve drastic improvements in its energy policy. So it is hardly possible to use biomass for energy recovery. The use of solar energy and wind energy is almost as difficult, whereby Singapore, due to its equatorial location, should be ideally suited to generate energy from solar radiation, especially since seasons are far less a problem than in Northern Europe.


2. Singapore’s geostrategic position favours international trade in energy, but also makes the city-state dependent on the leading maritime power in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific.

So Singapore has very few options to provide energy for its own people. So far Singapore has decided to use oil supplies for energy production via the sea routes and due to the favourable location at the Strait of Malacca. But because up to 85% of Singapore’s energy supply depends on the oil industry, the independence of the city state’s energy supply is not guaranteed in the long term. I have already discussed the consequences of peak oil in more detail and why highly modernised countries in particular have to accept cuts in their local energy supply. Only recently Singapore decided to expand its energy supply and to switch to LNG supplies from the Middle East, receiving natural gas from Qatar. The main problem, however, is Singapore’s geopolitical dependence on the countries of the Middle East. Exactly this dependence can now become Singapore’s undoing, emerging from the geopolitical distortions and energy market turbulances in the Middle East, while attempting to develop its own domestic energy policy independent of the turmoil of distant countries, because the majority of the oil supplies flowing to Singapore come from the Gulf States. Singapore is particularly affected by such distortions because the main strength of the state is its international, global trade in goods and services. Nevertheless, Singapore has profited from this. The bottleneck, the Strait of Malacca, is a blessing for Singapore’s financial survival, but the powerful states of East Asia are also all in one way or another dependent on oil supplies from the Middle East, especially China, which represents another energy policy pole for Singapore. Singapore’s prosperity therefore depends to a large extent on its core competence, namely to keep the Strait of Malacca and the adjacent oceans, i.e. the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, open to world trade. It is precisely the opening of the Asian continent to free trade, and ultimately the strengthening of China, that has made Singapore a centre of global trade. Thus, Singapore’s prosperity is fed by the free trade of goods across the world’s oceans, and a level of security that only the United States can currently provide.


3. Singapore’s enormous international trade in energy was due to the enormous economic growth of the East Asian countries, especially China.

As I mentioned earlier, economic growth is linked to growing energy consumption. In other words, one could say that Singapore’s economic growth would not have been possible without the economic growth of the People’s Republic of China, and China’s economic growth would not have been possible without the increasing energy supplies from the Middle East, brought to China through the Strait of Malacca, which is the link of international energy trade between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. Now, of course, one could say that the Russian Federation has also seen an increase in energy supplies to the People’s Republic of China, at least until now these quantities have not been in any way comparable to the supplies from the Strait of Malacca. Energy supplies from the Strait of Malacca exceed Russian oil supplies many times over, and the same applies in part to natural gas supplies. Only recently have natural gas deliveries from Russia to China risen through the Power of Siberia natural gas pipeline. However, it will be years before China purchases enough oil and gas from various supplier countries to avoid the Strait of Malacca’s continuing dominance of energy transits to East Asia, which had benefited Singapore so much.


4. Singapore will reach the limits of growth in the international energy business if China succeeds in establishing alternative trade routes to the Strait of Malacca.

Also, China will certainly complete the new port in Gwadar, Baluchistan, which will then be able to channel large amounts of energy through Pakistan to Xingang, where these energy supplies will support China’s enormous expansion plans in its own western provinces that will secure China’s borders and integrate minorities into the mainstream of society.  The future reduction of energy volumes will certainly affect Singapore as a transhipment point for oil and gas, but trade with the eastern provinces of the People’s Republic of China will continue to flourish because energy supplies by sea will remain competitive. Singapore will therefore reach the limits of trade growth, but the handling and distribution of energy commodities has rarely been Singapore’s weak point. Rather, it has almost always been the availability of land to build energy facilities that has put Singapore in a position where it was itself dependent on energy suppliers from abroad. That is Singapore’s main security risk. In order to ensure the continuous supply of energy over enormous geographical distances, Singapore needed a protective power that, with its own independance from the Federation of Malaysia, had become the United States.

The fact that Singapore has no energy resources of its own and has a growing population in a very small geographical area means it is crucial for Singapore to expand its LNG supplies in order to become less dependent on just one raw material, oil. But the diversification away from petroleum is an important trend in East Asia in general. However, where Singapore differs significantly from the other major cities in East Asia is that the Singaporean government is actually interested in improving the energy performance of buildings through energy-saving devices, because Singapore is trying to minimize the need for imported energy through measures that help reduce the energy consumption of homes.


5. Singapore had thought about the civilian use of nuclear energy due to its own energy problems, but ultimately decided against it

Due to the geographical limitations of the city-state, much consideration was also given to the civilian use of nuclear energy, which offers the advantage of supplying Singapore with sufficient energy to cover its own electricity needs. However, there was also enormous resistance to nuclear power due to the fact that Singapore is too densely populated and has little space to build a nuclear power plant. Certainly in this case Singapore would be dependent on uranium supplies from Australia in some way, but only to a limited extent, because nuclear power actually expands the existing energy sources and creates more flexibility in the choice of available energy sources. The real reason why Singapore finally decided against the use of nuclear energy, however, was a completely different one in my opinion.


6. For Singapore, the question of the military and civilian use of nuclear energy is a central issue, and goes far beyond energy issues

The geopolitical situation in East Asia and Southeast Asia is currently very tense. Let us take a look back at the history of the city-state. Great Britain was once the protecting power of Singapore, and basically founded the city-state. At that time, Singapore was rather backward, and miles away from the current centers of global power. However, this changed due to growing global trade and the importance of rubber, later by the exchange of goods between Europe, India and China, Singapore became increasingly important. The Japanese invasion showed how important Singapore’s position along the Strait of Malacca really is. It quickly became clear that Singapore was the gateway to the Indian Ocean for the Japanese. It is also not surprising that Singapore gained more prestige in the following years and left the Federation of Malaysia, because Singapore was able to conduct its own economic and energy policy, particularily when it came to the international exchange of goods. But with the departure of the British, and the Japanese’s entertaining supremacy in the Indo-Pacific region, and the steady disintegration of the British Empire, it quickly became clear that Singapore, like Australia, had to seek a new protector. This was essential to maintain the flow of goods and to secure the prosperity and supply of the city-state. It was a fundamental strategic reorientation for Singapore to untie the knot with the British, and to commit to the Americans.

Due to the fact that the United States had already been on an expansion course in the Indo-Pacific region, and the Japanese had been defeated in the Second World War, the United States took on the protective role after the British had withdrawn.  Although the British maintained their own naval base in Singapore until 1958, the United States was the real naval power in the Pacific. With the rise of China in recent decades, the geopolitical situation is changing and becoming more complex. China wants to secure the sea routes to the Indian Ocean out of its own interest, and for this to happen China must exercise a certain degree of control over the Indo-Pacific region. Singapore is the central chokepoint in this geographical area. It is difficult for Singapore to create a good balance between a global military power like the United States that guarantees the trade of goods and energy, and an Asian great power like China, whose economic growth Singapore depends on to secure its prosperity. This ultimately also explains why Singapore is performing a diplomatic balancing act on the question of the civil and military use of nuclear energy in order to achieve its geopolitical interests. That this does not always succeed is clear, but Singapore sees itself as a regional power in between formidable global powers, quite similar to Venice in Italy. Not surprisingly, the meeting on nuclear disarmament of North Korea, attended by the heads of state of the United States and North Korea, took place in Singapore.


07. New world powers emerge, and this requires even more diplomatic skill from Singapore

Singapore is quite disturbed by the fact that more world powers are claiming the lifelines of the global sea trade and trade of energy commodities for themselves. India now has a functioning Navy that is very powerful, but is more active in the Indian Ocean. These entanglements lead to a situation where the energy issues for Singapore become a problem for society as a whole, because of its geostrategic importance. One last option would be stronger cooperation with neighbouring countries, especially Indonesia, which, unlike Singapore, has its own natural gas reserves. However, this requires a fine-tuned and targeted cooperation at various levels, and energy policy is just one area.


References:

The Diplomat, The Trouble with Indonesia-Singapore Relations, 2015, https://thediplomat.com/2015/10/the-trouble-with-indonesia-singapore-relations/

OilPrice.Com, Russia’s Huge Natural Gas Pipeline To China Nearly Complete, 2018, https://oilprice.com/Latest-Energy-News/World-News/Russias-Huge-Natural-Gas-Pipeline-To-China-Nearly-Complete.html

 

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