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Singapore Policy Journal

Topic / International Relations and Security

To What Extent is Singapore a “Middle Power” in the Indo-Pacific?

Elements of Singapore’s foreign policy qualify it as a “middle power,” as per de Swielande’s (2019) theory of regional powers in the Indo-Pacific. This paper addresses the predominance of studies on India, Australia, Indonesia, and South Korea in the literature, as the typical middle powers in the Indo-Pacific (de Swielande, 2019). Small states are frequently overlooked vis-à-vis their impact on geopolitics; yet, Singapore is unique in its ability to “punch above its weight” (Heng & Aljunied, 2015). Despite its small size, population, and utter lack of natural resources, the “little red dot” is a renowned economic and financial powerhouse, ranks higher in human development than India, South Korea, and Indonesia (UNDP, 2022), and was the only Southeast Asian state to aggressively condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Still, Singapore’s status as a middle power is frequently disputed, situated awkwardly between a small and middle power, held back by its mere geographical size and small population (Lam, 2022). I question the degree to which physical endowments can, or should, obstruct Singapore’s acceptance as an unequivocal middle power in the Indo-Pacific – perhaps, size should not matter (so much). Singapore’s various accolades and notable geopolitical activity warrant further examination into Singapore’s qualifications as a middle power. A middle power is a state wielding geopolitical influence by reinforcing and influencing greater powers, operating as a balancing mechanism for smaller states (de Swielande, 2019); their greatest contributions are often at the regional level (Holbraad, 1984).

According to de Swielande (2019), to be considered a middle power a state must possess medium-range capacities, primarily conceived as material capabilities in the realms of economics, the military, or bureaucracy. Additionally, middle powers should conceive of themselves as middle powers, though more importantly should be recognized by many other states, and also by great powers, as a middle power as well (Götz, Larson, Shevchenko, Murray, & Renshon, 2021). Middle powers should also have systemic impact, or the ability to “initiate change in a specific aspect of the existing international order” (Carr, 2014, p. 79). Finally, middle powers should have regional impact, largely dependent on the structure of a country’s Regional Security Complex (RSC) (Buzan & Wæver, 2010), here defined to Southeast Asia, encompassed totally by the Indo-Pacific. Singapore has exercised significant foreign policy actions in all characteristics above, thereby qualifying as a middle power according to de Swielande’s typology.

Material Capacity

Singapore’s various material capacities merit its qualifications as a middle power, in particular, by expanding its military might. Singapore has one of the highest per capita defense expenditures in the world (Lam, 2022) and is one of the largest arms manufacturers in the world (S. S. Tan, 2015). The Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) are one of the most technologically advanced and well-networked forces globally (Bitzinger, 2021), having a large conscript army drawn from National Service of all males above 18 years old and long reservist contracts. These have contributed to Singapore’s strong sense of military identity and materially, a capable defense force kept in a high state of readiness (Bitzinger, 2021). Indeed, Singapore’s small size has historically infringed on its ability to maintain territorial sovereignty. With only 710km2 to defend, the Konfrontasi bombings of 1963 demonstrated Singapore’s vulnerability to attack from neighbouring Indonesia. Additionally, Britain’s failure to defend the island-state from Japanese invasion in Feburary 1942, deemed Singapore’s loss as “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history” (Churchill, 1942).

However, Singapore’s proactive defense policies have helped overcome the island’s limitations as a small country. By recognising its own traditional strategic weaknesses, such as a small aging population and no strategic depth, surrounded by potentially hostile neighbors, Singapore developed a “poison pill” mindset (Faisol Keling, Shukri Shuib, & Na’eim Ajis, 2009), making invasion disproportionately costly to potential attackers. For instance, a long-standing defense strategy has been to leverage technological developments as a critical force multiplier (S. S. Tan, 2015). Domestic development and production of small arms, light armored vehicles and artillery systems have been most successful, such as ST Kinetic’s 120mm Super Rapid Advanced Mortar System, one of the most advanced mobile rapid-fire mortar systems in the world (Bitzinger, 2021). Clearly, Singapore’s developing material military capacities have helped it overcome its preordained geographical disadvantages, and should qualify it as having obtained ‘middle power’ status.

Furthermore, Singapore exercises its middle power status in several ways, being on-par with other global middle powers. For instance, Singapore exports military weapons to Indonesia, Australia, and Canada, totaling $11.9 million in 2021 (Sredl, 2023) and participates in joint military developments, such as working with Germany and Israel to develop the MATADOR anti-tank missile (The Independent, 2022). The SAF and its assets are also regularly deployed to contribute to humanitarian missions (Ho et al., 2016), such as the SAF’s key involvement in reconstructing Iraq, providing on-the-ground assistance during the 2015 Nepalese earthquake, and aiding evacuations from Afghanistan in 2021. Altogether, Singapore’s material military capabilities help project the image of a middle power on the international scene.

Perceptions and Status

What distinguishes middle powers from small powers is their ability to be more independent and active than small powers (Yuan, 2020), particularly in the realm of diplomacy. Singapore is far more diplomatically agile in comparison to, say, Laos. Both are Southeast Asian countries and members of ASEAN and are forced to navigate great power competition between the US and China for strategic dominance in the Indo-Pacific (Gil, 2021). However, Singapore’s actions and capabilities distinguish them as stronger than small powers, such as their strong language in condemning Russia’s war against Ukraine. Singapore also joined the international sanctions regime against Russia, striking in comparison to the rest of Southeast Asia’s muted responses to the invasion. Middle powers like Singapore are particularly noted for being “moral actors” (Yuan, 2020), in comparison to small powers. This all supports the notion Singapore perceives itself as having a great power position in comparison to its surrounding small powers in Southeast Asia.

What also differentiates middle powers from great powers is middle powers’ preference for multilateralism (Yuan, 2020). Singapore maintains incredibly diverse and strong diplomatic ties. For example, despite Singapore’s official recognition of a One China Policy, Singapore has a long-standing military arrangement with Taiwan and frequently perform overseas training missions together. Yet, China has avoided seriously confronting Singapore, save once in 2016 where China seized several Singapore armed vehicles. Since then, however, Sino-Singaporean relations have been warming (Ba, 2019) despite Singapore’s continued friendly relations and military exercises with Taiwan, contrasting China’s tendencies to aggressively and consistently challenge other nations who infringe or undermine the One China Policy. This signifies a great degree of Singaporean diplomatic power in securing and maintaining flexible bilateral relations with a great power, like China. That Singapore has the confidence and capability to manage tense relationships with greater powers, while also signaling on the international scene their strength in comparison to smaller powers, indicates Singapore recognizes and is recognized as a middle power.

Systemic Impact

While Singapore’s geographic size does limit to some degree from leading changes in systemic orders, it is on par with other middle powers particularly in leading new frontiers of governance. For instance, in the realm of global cyber governance practices, both South Korea and Singapore are frequently cited as initiating change in the systemic order (Kim, 2022). Cyberspace governance is a significant frontier of great power rivalry between the US and China (Perlroth, 2021); in the wake of the UN’s failure to set up rules for responsible state-led cyber governance, culminating in a breakdown of discussions in 2017, Singapore has notably used its middle power behaviours to help shape the cyber governance landscape. For instance, rather than passively navigating US-China rivalry in the cyberwarfare arena, Singapore has an active role in shaping the battlefield. The launching of the annual international cyber week in 2016 and hosting ASEAN’s ministerial conference on cybersecurity (AMCC) has cemented Singapore’s key role in managing the progress of discourse around cyberspace governance (Kim, 2022).

Using ASEAN as a platform to propel its policies from a middle power position, Singapore also initiated norm-building and implementation practices. For example, the creation of a Norms Implementation Checklist under the United Nations-Singapore Cyber Programme (UNSCP), provided a list of action plans to enable the adoption of the UN’s 11 voluntary norms of responsible state behaviour in the cyberspace. Evidently, Singapore is a critical player in this realm by helping initiate change in the international order of cyberspace governance, exhibiting its ‘middle power’ position. Furthermore, Singapore’s systemic impact in shaping cyberspace governance exhibits their ability to manouevre and mediate in an arena of US-China conflict, placing itself as a neutral broker for governance. Indeed, they are “knights, bishops and rooks…who cannot dominate and thus have to deploy their strength in combination with others” (Hayes, 1994, p. 14), primarily using ASEAN as the larger platform to amplify Singapore’s policies. So, Singapore seems currently worthy of being accepted a middle power in the Indo-Pacific in terms of their systemic impact, but this hinges on the continuity of ASEAN support and political will towards shaping international orders like cyber governance.

Regional Impact

In comparison to systemic impacts, Singapore’s direct regional impacts are unequivocal. The greatest contribution of middle powers is their regional influence (Holbraad, 1984), over systemic impact which comes in various shapes and forms. For instance, Singapore’s intense involvement in regional affairs, most significantly as an advisory power to China’s Belt-and-Road Initiative (Ba, 2019). Singapore’s higher economic development means it does not have the same interest in the BRI’s infrastructural projects, and so instead performs as a facilitator between China and other ASEAN states, going beyond its role as ASEAN’s Country Coordinator for China from 2015-2018 during the height of interest in BRI. Singapore contributes significantly to China’s infrastructural diplomacy in the region by facilitating projects between recipient nations and China. For example, Singapore’s institutional experience and connections with commercial banks, financial advisory for Southeast Asian infrastructural projects, and project financing through multilateral developmental organisations (Ba, 2019), make it well-placed as a supporting partner and advisor to many BRI projects. This links clearly to the role of middle powers as being conduits between small and great powers (de Swielande, 2019), being flexible regional players.


To conclude, despite being a “little red dot,” Singapore’s geopolitical impact far exceeds its size. Singapore’s material capacities, in particular, make it a valuable geopolitical player in the Indo-Pacific, going beyond military might but extending towards Singapore’s ability to command relevance from greater powers through diplomatic savviness and economic strategy. Looking forward, increasingly tense Indo-Pacific relations may soon elevate and highlight Singapore’s foreign policy prowess, as other Southeast Asian states look for guidance on how to navigate a complex web of trade, war, and geopolitics.


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