22 March 2019
Singapore has developed a hinterland network that is more multi-dimensional than that of Hong Kong. Photo: Bloomberg
Singapore has developed a hinterland network that is more multi-dimensional than that of Hong Kong. Photo: Bloomberg

Hinterland networks: Why Singapore is scoring over HK

In his 1996 book “Hong Kong: Asia’s Network City”, economic historian Takeshi Hamashita had identified eight hinterlands for Hong Kong, ranging from Northeast Asia to Southeast Asia. They are:

1. The coastal regions from South China to Central China

2. Guangdong’s Pearl River Delta

3. Southwest China (Guizhou, Yunnan and Sichuan)

4. The Northern region of Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Laos and North Thailand)

5. South East Asian Peninsula and its islands

6. South China Sea

7. Taiwan

8. Japan, South Korea, Russian Siberia and Northeast China. 

Hong Kong has indeed counted several regions as its hinterland in the earlier days. 

But since its reunification with China, the city has been increasingly leaning on the mainland.

This is partly a political issue, but the situation is that other hinterlands are gradually closing their doors on Hong Kong.

For those who are wondering what exactly constitutes a hinterland, it is defined as an inland area that provides resources, market and working force for a metropolis.

Take Southeast Asia. Hong Kong has been trying to sign a free trade agreement with ASEAN, with help from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. However, Singapore has opposed the proposal, arguing that Hong Kong would “slow ASEAN down”.

It is worth examining if other nations and regions also will change their policy toward Hong Kong due to the increasingly blurred line between China and Hong Kong. Taiwan is one such prospect.

Meanwhile, coming back to Singapore, developing hinterlands was supposed to be more difficult for the place, as its neighbors were once not quite friendly. But being an independent entity, its government has thoroughly made use of the city-state’s geographical location to participate in many geopolitical games.

Gradually, Singapore built up an international network that is more multi-dimensional than that of Hong Kong, even though not all of the networks can be its hinterlands.

So, how has Singapore managed to engage in the geopolitical games? Here are the strategies that it adopted:

1. The city-state has actively pursued trade opportunities with China. To ride the China boom, Singapore knows that it shouldn’t step on Beijing’s toes on controversial issues such as the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong.

2. Singapore has long been regarding Malaysia and Indonesia as its natural hinterlands. Thus, it always emphasizes its special relationships with the two countries.

For example, in an event for the countdown to 2015, an emcee mourned for those who died in the crash of the AirAsia Indonesia flight 8501 and described them as brothers. Similarly, Singapore showed its concern for the victims of Malaysia Airlines Fight 370, like that it was its own business.

3. Singapore is very active in ASEAN. It has established many research centers on ASEAN, and even takes a leading role in the regional organization. When it comes to international law, ASEAN always relies on Singapore’s view.

4. Tamil language from India is one of the languages spoken in Singapore. There are many Indians in Singapore, and its “Little India” enclave is a reflection of the city’s multiculturalism. Many seminars on Sino-Indian relations are held in the politically neutral Singapore. Despite some racial issues, South Asia is becoming one of the areas that Singapore focuses on.

5. Singapore has utilized its relations with Indonesia and Malaysia to develop economic ties with the Islamic world. This has helped it become an important logistics center equivalent to Dubai. Hong Kong has been proposing Islamic bond issuance for years, while Singapore completed the first Islamic bond deal back in 2009.

6. Singapore relies on the US diplomatically, even as it places large economic bets on China. The city-state believes that Washington is a hedge against Beijing. Singapore has a close relationship with the US in anti-terrorist intelligence gathering, and even asked Washington not to leave the Asia-Pacific.

In addition, Singapore is a former colony of Britain and its armed forces received some training from Israel. All these networks still matter now.

We do not have a crystal ball, but judging from the current trends of internationalization for Hong Kong and Singapore, it’s hard to be optimistic about Hong Kong’s hinterland prospect in 50 years’ time.

– Contact us at [email protected]


Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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