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Back on Track?

Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s visit to China is set to bolster ties following the strained relations of the previous year

By NewsChina Updated Nov.1

On September 19-21, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong visited China, where he held a number of high-level talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang, Chairman of the National People’s Congress Zhang Dejiang, and Wang Qishan, who heads the Party’s commission for discipline inspection 

Announced only four days before Lee embarked on his trip, his visit to China, the first since 2014 and ahead of his scheduled visit to the US in October, was quite a surprise, especially considering that the bilateral relationship has been strained as a result of frictions arising from various issues, such as the South China Sea dispute and the Taiwan issue.  

Analysts believe that Lee’s trip to China is a sign that both China and Singapore are trying to repair their strained ties and get their relations back on track. 
Since Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father, paid a historic visit to China in 1976, followed by a reciprocal visit by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in 1978, the two countries, which share strong cultural ties, have maintained a stable relationship.  

Under Lee Kuan Yew’s leadership, Singapore has played an instrumental role in both China’s opening up policy, in forming relationships with the West, and in informing the West’s understanding of the mindset of Chinese leaders. In the meantime, Singapore has also benefited from China’s rapid economic rise, as China emerges to become the city state’s top trading partner. 

Neutrality or Not? 

For most of the past four decades, Singapore is seen to have followed “balance of power” diplomacy and to have maintained “neutrality” in the emerging strategic rivalry between China and the US in the region. 
However, in the past couple of years, Singapore is increasingly seen by Beijing to have tilted toward the US both economically and militarily, as the US launched its “pivot-to-Asia” policy while China adopted a more assertive foreign policy.  

In the field of security, during the South China Sea disputes for example, Singapore, which is not a claimant in the dispute, pushed ASEAN countries to deal with the issue together, rather than through the bilateral negotiations which China has prefers. 
Singapore has joined the US, Japan and Australia to voice strong support for the ruling made by the Permanent Court of Arbitration regarding the dispute, in which China has consistently refused to either participate, or to accept its result.  

Moreover, Singapore signed military agreements with the US, which allows the US to deploy several littoral combat ships and P-8A Poseidon aircraft to Singapore, both of which could be used to conduct maritime surveillance patrols over the South China Sea. 

In the field of trade and commerce, Singapore has appeared reluctant to support China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), although it joined the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Involving massive investment in infrastructure, including in roads and ports across the region, the project is deemed by many in Singapore as a potential threat to the Lion City’s position as the region’s leading transportation and trade hub.  

By contrast, Singapore actively supported the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Signed by 12 countries during the Obama Administration and eventually dumped by US President Donald Trump, the TPP was widely considered a trade deal aimed to exclude China and even dubbed by some as an “economic NATO.” Throughout 2016, Lee Hsien Loong made repeated calls for the US congress to ratify the trade deal, and then in early 2017 urged the new US President not to scrap the deal, warning that doing so would diminish Washington’s influence in the region.  


These hidden frictions with China eventually came to the surface, when on November 23, 2016, Hong Kong customs seized nine Terrex Infantry Carrier Vehicles (ICVs) and other military equipment belonging to Singapore from a container ship, for failing to produce the necessary paperwork for their clearance.  

The equipment was believed to be on its way from Taiwan to Singapore via Hong Kong after being used in a training program under Project Starlight, a defense agreement signed between Singapore and Taiwanese authorities in 1975 to allow Singapore to send up to 15,000 Singaporean troops a year to Taiwan to train.  

It has long been a precondition for any country that wants to have a diplomatic relationship with Beijing to cut its official ties with Taipei under the One-China principle. In the past, China has acquiesced on the military ties between Singapore and Taipei. But with the increasing tension between the two countries, the room for ambiguity appears to be diminishing.  

When asked about the event, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Geng Shuang said in a news conference that China “firmly opposed countries that have diplomatic ties with China to have any form of official exchanges with Taiwan, including military exchanges and cooperation.” 

Although the equipment was eventually returned to Singapore in January this year, the two countries were still at odds. At China’s high-profile Belt and Road Summit held in June, Lee Hsien Loong was one of the few leaders of Southeast Asian countries to not be invited. In the meantime, China launched various massive investment projects in the city state’s neighboring countries. Among them is a US$10 billion project called the Melaka Gateway aimed at building an off-shore trading port in Malacca, only 205 kilometers from Singapore. Once complete, the project has the potential to divert a huge volume of trade away from Singapore port. 

‘Small State’  

These new developments are widely considered as China’s “punishment” for Singapore’s pro-US stance, and have caused much anxiety within the city state regarding its future prosperity, a sentiment further aggravated by the Trump administration’s “America First” policy.  

In the past couple of months, there has been some serious soul-searching among Singapore’s foreign policy experts regarding the role Singapore should play in a region which sees more and more major power rivalries.  

In an article published in Singapore’s The Straits Times on July 1, entitled “Qatar: Big lessons from a small country,” Kishore Mahbubani, Singapore’s former Permanent Representative to the United Nations and now dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (LKYSPP) at the National University of Singapore, argued that Singapore, as a small state, should behave like a small state and be more prudent in matters involving great powers.  

Drawing lessons from Qatar, a small Gulf state with a population of 2.6 million which is enduring diplomatic isolation and a land blockade imposed by an international league led by its larger neighbor Saudi Arabia, Mahbubani said Singapore would “have been wiser to be more circumspect” on the South China Sea disputes, “especially since the Philippines, which was involved in the case, did not want to press it.” 

He further argued that the only reason Singapore had wielded some global influence was due to Lee Kuan Yew, whom he said was treated with great respect by all major powers as a global statesman. Lee Kuan Yew passed away in March 2015. “[But] we are now in the post-Lee Kuan Yew era … [and] as a result, we should change our behavior significantly,” Mahbubani added. 

Quoting Thucydides’s famous proclamation, “Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Mahbubani added that Singapore should be more “Machiavellian” in its diplomacy. 

For many, Mahbubani’s remarks, especially those regarding the post-Lee Kuan Yew era, are implicit criticism of current leader Lee Hsien Loong, son of the senior Lee. Analysts in both Singapore and China have attributed Singapore’s perceived deviation from neutrality to the junior Lee, who had angered China by paying a visit to Taiwan in 2004, a month before he became Singapore’s Prime Minister for the first time. 
Mahbubani’s article immediately triggered a heated debate and serious criticism from the city state’s top diplomats and officials. Singapore’s Ambassador-at-Large, Bilahari Kausikan, accused Mahbubani of advocating “subordination as a norm of Singapore foreign policy,” a point he said was “dangerously misleading.” Kausikan was later joined by Singapore’s Law and Home Affairs Minister and former foreign minister K. Shanmugam, who described Mahbubani’s view as “questionable intellectually.” 

But Mahbubani does have supporters. His colleague at the LKYSPP, Yap Kwong Weng, a regional advisor on Indochina at the school, for example, said that the criticism was exaggerated and there was nothing dangerous about pointing out that “prudence is required of small states when it comes to geopolitical calculations.” 

Policy Adjustment 

Regardless of the result of the debate, it is evident that in the past couple of months the Singaporean leadership has started to adjust both its rhetoric and policies on various issues where there have been frictions with China.  

For example, during the Shangri-La Dialogue held in June in the city, a regional security forum where China has been under attack for its South China Sea policies in previous years, Singapore’s Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen made no comments regarding the issue this year. Instead, Ng devoted much of his speech to China’s BRI, saying that Singapore’s geographic location would allow it to connect the Belt (the overland Silk Road Economic Belt) with the Road (the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road).  

On June 3, Lee Hsien Loong said during an interview with Australia’s ABC network that Singapore supports the BRI and views it positively, which many Chinese media pointed out was the first time he has personally voiced his support for the initiative. 

It came as no surprise that the BRI was a focal point of Lee Hsien Loong’s three-day visit to China, when the two sides agreed to improve financial, judicial and legal cooperation regarding the BRI. An agreement was signed to work together to help businesses resolve disputes that may arise under the BRI. The two sides also pledged to undertake further negotiation to upgrade the existing free-trade agreement. 
As Singapore sets to take over as ASEAN chair in 2018, Lee Hsien Loong said that Singapore will promote the relationship between China and ASEAN. On the sidelines of Lee Hsien Loong’s visit, a meeting between Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan and his counterpart Ng Eng Hen held on September 22 resulted in an agreement to improve military ties between the two sides.