Analysis: veteran Asian diplomat, Ashok Mirpuri, bows out of Washington



Ashok Mirpuri, left, in Hawaii in March 2023, “Ambassador Ashok Mirpuri visited Hawaii last week and had a series of good meetings, including with @INDOPACOM Commander Adm. John C. Aquilino and @GovJoshGreenMD.” PHOTO: Twitter @SingaporeEmbDC

SINGAPORE – Ashok Mirpuri came to Washington in 2012, as the second term of President Barack Obama got underway. He remained in his post until his retirement last week, drawing to a close a lengthy tenure during which Mirpuri saw whole eras of U.S. politics fade and emerge. He was Singapore’s envoy to three successive U.S. administrations, which gave him a front-row seat to the twists and turns of the past decade.

Mirpuri saw the waning of American interest in U.S. military entanglements in the Middle East, the backlash against free trade from a public that no longer trusts in the dividends of globalization and the intensifying competition between the United States and China. In an interview with Today’s WorldView, he discussed his stint in Washington and how Singapore navigates an increasingly fraught geopolitical context. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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Today’s WorldView: It’s unusual for an ambassador to complete as long of a tour as you did in Washington. How did it affect your view of the city?

Ashok Mirpuri: Well, the advantage of spending this much time in D.C. is that you get to build relationships over a long period. Coming from a country like Singapore – we’re not a relationship in which there are too many difficulties, but sometimes you just get put aside as a country that doesn’t really require that much attention. But by staying long enough, you get to know people, you get to understand the context of the city. And it is a fascinating city to be in. There is a revolving door in administrations. Even if administrations stay long, because it is such a draining task, key members of the team turn over, but they keep coming back into new roles down the road. And that has been one key advantage of being in D.C. for all this period.

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Obama’s “pivot to Asia” was already underway when you arrived in Washington, and his administration made a series of overtures to Southeast Asian nations. How different is the tenor of things now, given the new focus on China?

Today, the Washington conversation is all about U.S.-China relations. It does move Southeast Asia into a very different context of that relationship. Yes, the administration still does things with Southeast Asia: They had a very successful summit [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations] of leaders last May. But ASEAN and Southeast Asia is almost in a sort of confluence in between U.S.-China relations. That change, that geopolitical shift into a great power competition in 2023, was not really there in 2012.

So that has been a fairly dramatic shift, which has also gone in line with things happening domestically: The focus on “foreign policy for the middle class,” the focus on getting more investments back. I see both of these going hand in hand, and the challenge for countries like Singapore, is how do you navigate through these changes? And so having an ambassador who stayed some time, got to know people and tried to understand those sort of nuances as they shift has been very useful.

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Does Singapore feel caught in the middle of this great power tussle?

Well, I’m not sure that we are entirely in the middle of it. And I’m not sure whether we can influence either side. We have to survive the shifts in this relationship because we are close to both sides. We have a very deep, strong security and economic relationship with the United States, one that dates back more than 30 years. Similarly with China, we do have very close economic times. We have regular exchanges that take place; we’re building up a bilateral relationship with them.

How do we create a system in the Indo-Pacific that there can be some calm because that calm has brought a great deal of economic success for Singapore and other countries of the region. And how do we keep that calm going for an extended period, even as there’s a power competition? That’s what Singapore and the other ASEAN countries want to navigate. And that’s where we put quite a bit of effort in engaging both the Americans and the Chinese on these issues.

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If you listen to some voices on both sides, there’s a sense of an almost inevitable U.S.-China clash over Taiwan. What’s your view on the tensions surrounding the island?

We are concerned about it, it’s become an issue. Both sides’ take is very critical to them. There has been a status quo that has served us well for over 50 years. That status quo is being adjusted by everybody. And in a way we need to find some new balance if we cannot get back to that old status quo. You want to avoid the inevitable as much as you can.

Have you been surprised by how such a hawkish bipartisan consensus emerged on China in the United States?

Looking back at similar conversations I had in 2015 and 2016, there was already some sense that things may start shifting. I don’t think anybody anticipated on either side that it would shift so dramatically.

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What would you say is the single biggest success of your tenure?

I think keeping Singapore near the top of the Washington conversation in a good way. I think the highlight was the Prime Minister [Lee Hsien Loong] being invited for a state visit [in 2016] with the dinner, because not many small countries get that privilege and the prestige and the honor when you see official Washington basically turning out for Singapore. Don’t forget, Singapore is on the other side of the world. There’s a significant asymmetry in its size compared to the U.S. And yet, we do have that place in American foreign policy thinking about the region that offers a helpful voice when we can.

There was also that eye-catching, if ineffectual, summit between Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump in Singapore in 2018.

No matter where you were in the world, you had all the cameras focused on Singapore. I think it gave a certain sense of credibility that Singapore at short notice could organize that summit. Now, the substance of it is really for the U.S. and North Korea to take up. And the fact that it was not able to succeed is unfortunate for the regional dynamics, and we are seeing some of those concerns come up again today.

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Do you worry about Singapore’s place in Asia at a time of such potential chaos? Beyond war, a return to forms of protectionism surely complicates things for a nation built on trade and logistics and powered by globalization?

Our history of getting independence, of surviving the early years of independence, of dealing with changes within Southeast Asia [ensured] that we never take anything for granted. We have been fortunate to be in a positive place, as global trends were a lot more globalized. But Singapore was always a hub for connection since the early 19th century. We will make the adjustments in order to ride through these challenges. We would like a more connected world, a more inclusive world, but many of these things are beyond our ability to influence. What we can influence is really to make sure that there is a space for Singapore in this. That we’re not sort of cut off by either [the United States or China] and so we never take anything for granted. We just have to be focused on the future. See where the opportunities come up. Be in many ways nimble to connect with either side, and other countries as well.



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