Singapore in Sino-US Crossfire Over Spy Case

The island republic plots a course between superpowers

By: Toh Han Shih

International acrimony surrounding the conviction of a Singaporean accused of spying for China is complicating Singapore’s tricky balancing act in maintaining relations with both the US and China.

On July 24, Dickson Yeo Jun Wei, 39, pleaded guilty to acting as an agent for Chinese intelligence within the US and now faces up to 10 years in a US prison. Yeo admitted to working for Chinese intelligence, using a fake consultancy business in the US as a front to targeting Americans for “valuable non-public information.” 

The fake business was registered under the same name as a prominent US consulting firm that conducts public and government relations and was said to have been used to gather more than 400 resumes, 90 percent of which were from US military or government personnel with security clearances. 

Yeo was said to have followed guidance from Chinese spies on recruiting US individuals, including identifying their vulnerabilities such as dissatisfaction with work or financial difficulties, said the DOJ.

The US has long considered Singapore a quiet ally in Asia going back to the Vietnam War and increasing after the US vacated its lease on the giant Subic Bay naval station in the Philippines in 1991 and moved naval facilities to the island republic. Singapore’s Changi Naval Base serves as a supply point for US Navy ships including nuclear submarines and aircraft carrier groups for refueling and supply for operation in the Western Pacific.

Since 2013, the US has also been rotating littoral combat ships and P-8 Poseidon spy planes as part of its freedom of navigation exercises in the South China Sea and a time when China has intensified its regional presence, enlarging specks in the Spratly and Paracel chains into fully-fledged bases to claim ownership of the entire sea virtually up to the doorsteps of the littoral nations.

“This isn't just about this particular defendant,” said Alan Kohler Junior, Assistant Director of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division. “This case is yet another reminder that China is relentless in its pursuit of US technology and policy information in order to advance its own interests. The FBI and our partners will be just as aggressive in uncovering these hidden efforts and charging individuals who break our laws.” 

The question is whether the FBI is still seeking to ferret out agents spying for China in Singapore. According to the FBI’s website, the agency maintains a legal attaché in the US Embassy to “establish and maintain liaison with Singapore’s law enforcement and security services” to enable the FBI to “effectively and expeditiously conduct its responsibilities in combating international terrorism, organized crime, cybercrime, and general criminal matters.”

“The fallout from the Yeo case may be indicative of the challenges facing Singapore.” said Chong Ja Ian, a visiting Singaporean scholar at the Harvard-Yenching Institute in the US. “Singapore probably wants to avoid seeming antagonistic to both Beijing and Washington, but moves by either could make pursuing such options more trying. In a worst case, Singapore could end up being seen as duplicitous or complicit in the efforts of a rival in both major power capitals.”

Beijing’s alleged efforts to recruit agents among ethnic Chinese overseas certainly doesn’t make things easy for Singapore, said Chong. Given the country’s majority ethnic Chinese population, that a Singaporean ends up getting caught up in such efforts is unsurprising, Chong added. “An unfortunate side effect is that more Singaporeans and even Singapore may become suspect for complicity in such efforts in places other than China, such as the United States.”

The Singapore government’s attempts to find a middle way between the two superpowers will become increasingly challenging as US-China tensions grow, said Chong.

Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, argued that the Yeo affair won’t place Singapore in a more difficult situation in trying to strike a balance between the two superpowers, because Yeo is not sponsored by the Singapore government.

In recent weeks, US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has frequently denounced China on various issues including Beijing’s tightening grip on Hong Kong, while trying to recruit other nations to side with the US against China. On July 30, Pompeo told the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Chinese government is “the central threat of our times” and expressed satisfaction that Australia, Japan, and UK have increased naval maneuvers in the South China Sea.

On the recent announcement by the US and Australian governments to strengthen military cooperation in the Asia Pacific, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin on July 29 urged both countries to “stop interfering in China’s internal affairs” or damage Chinese interests.

At a Chinese Foreign Ministry press conference in Beijing on July 27, Wang said he was not aware of the Yeo case and alleged, “Lately US law enforcement has been busy hyping up the so-called China infiltration and espionage issues to the point of paranoia. It is open knowledge that the US runs an aggressive espionage and theft program all across the globe, sparing not even its allies. There's solid evidence for this.”

“The world has seen the act of the real thief crying "stop the thief" too many times. We urge the US to stop using the so-called espionage issue to smear China,” Wang added.

“This is the damage this sordid little traitor has wrought on all the rest of us,” said Bilahari Kausikan, a former Singapore diplomat, said on his Facebook page on July 28. On July 25, Bilahari, who is known for his anti-China views, said Yeo was previously working on a PhD at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore supervised by Huang Jing, whom the Singapore government expelled in 2017.

The Singapore government alleged Huang, who was born in China and is a US citizen with a PhD from Harvard University, tried to influence Singapore’s foreign policy on behalf of a foreign government which it did not name. However, Bilahari alleged on Facebook that Huang was a Chinese agent of influence.

Huang told the South China Morning Post on July 27 that Bilahari’s allegations were “nonsense” and “unreasonable” and demanded Bilahari prove the comments or retract them. Huang, who is now a professor at the Beijing Language and Culture University, admitted to supervising Yeo’s PhD thesis for about one year in an interview with Bloomberg TV.

The Lee Kuan Yew school has since canceled Yeo’s PhD candidacy.

Toh Han Shih is a Singaporean writer in Hong Kong.

This article is among the stories we choose to make widely available. If you wish to get the full Asia Sentinel experience and access more exclusive content, please do subscribe to us.