Sino-Singaporean Relations Back on Track

Publication: China Brief Volume: 5 Issue: 16

Sino-Singaporean relations have entered a more complex and complicated phase of development, thanks to a new strategic dimension that has arisen in the Asia-Pacific. After the tumultuous feud of August 2004 and the common will of both sides to make up, relations appeared to have hit another snag in June 2005, when Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong declared his support for Japan’s bid as a permanent member to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Beijing has expressed unhappiness at this support, three months before Lee’s scheduled visit to Beijing to “normalize” relations with Beijing. Moreover, Beijing must have been watching with interest Lee’s visit to Washington to meet President George W. Bush, his first since becoming Prime Minister of Singapore, especially since that visit yielded a Strategic Framework Agreement on enhanced military cooperation and technological exchanges between the two countries.

The visit of then-Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in early August, (who became Singapore’s Prime Minister on August 12, 2004) sparked an exceptional and emotional row between Singapore and China. Long recognized by both sides and by political observers for his role in Singapore’s “special relations” with Beijing, this Taipei visit had provoked Beijing’s wrath to such an extent that it surprised Singapore and its ASEAN and Asian neighbors.

In the aftermath of this “crisis,” Beijing had cancelled a series of bilateral visits and exchanges, from officials and ministers to students and journalists; China even cancelled the start of negotiations for a Sino-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (FTA), scheduled for the end of last year and as of now has not yet restored these talks. There was even a rumor out of Hong Kong last year that the Standing Committee of the Politburo had met over the “Singapore incident,” with some more hardline members calling for the recall of the Chinese Ambassador from Singapore, thus provoking an outright rupture of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Cooler heads ultimately prevailed and no drastic action was taken.

Although Beijing’s ire could be explained by the sensitivity of such a visit to Taipei by the Deputy Prime Minister and soon-to-be Prime Minister of Singapore (which was then perceived by Chinese leaders to have helped encourage Taiwan’s “independence forces”), there were indications from senior officials and academics in Beijing that China’s wrath went beyond just the Taiwan issue. Behind this “explosion” was also Beijing’s accumulated frustrations with Singapore’s perceived “increasing tilt towards the United States,” at a moment when Beijing’s leaders were increasingly wary of American strategic intentions and policies toward China.

In fact, this strategic perspective could better explain the “explosion of anger” in Beijing against Singapore than the mere visit to Taipei for then-DPM Lee, especially when his father, then-Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, had himself visited Taipei several times in the past, the most recent being in mid-2000 after the election of Chen Shui-bian as Taiwan’s President. The Senior Lee’s trips to Taiwan have never sparked similar reprisals and fury, as was the case of this latest unfortunate one.

Beijing senior officials and scholars were fast to point out in private what China saw as the “American tilt” of Singapore; in its eagerness to sign a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Washington (just as Beijing was wooing ASEAN through an ASEAN-China FTA), Singapore was “blamed” by Beijing for having pledged support to President Bush and the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. (Singapore had in fact sent some logistical support for a limited span of time to Iraq at the request of Washington.)

Then, Singapore’s support for an American proposal to send marines to help patrol the Straits of Malacca shocked the Chinese, who quickly supported and encouraged neighboring states, Malaysia and Indonesia, to block this initiative. A senior Chinese diplomat from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had described the American threat in the Malacca Straits as a “choke point” for China and its economic life-line. Certain quarters in Beijing have even criticized Singapore for not cooperating with the rest of Asia; some even perceived Singapore as having joined the “pro-U.S. and anti-China coalition in Asia”, like Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Australia, thus forming a de facto “arc of containment or encirclement” against China’s Pacific rim; it is feared that this coalition could then block China’s access to oil and gas from Southeast Asia’s maritime approaches and its exports to the rest of the world.

Meanwhile, using a divide-and-rule strategy against Singapore and its perceived alliance, Beijing also began its own diplomatic offensive toward Singapore’s immediate neighbors. China has quite successfully strengthened its own relations with Malaysia, Thailand, and even Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam, in an attempt to “counter” American presence in the region, and thus “pacify” China’s immediate region, as in the old days of China’s imperial tributary system under the Ming and Qing Emperors, solely based on trade, respect and stability. For example, during the Peoples’ Liberation Army Deputy Chief of Staff’s visit to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia in the direct aftermath of the Sino-Singaporean spat, Beijing managed to get the Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister to declare that no Malaysian minister would visit Taipei. At the same time, there was a rumor floated (most probably put out by Beijing) that it could envisage selling missiles to Kuala Lumpur, obviously trying to scare Singapore.

But Beijing and Singapore did attempt to patch up relations following the inauguration of PM Lee in mid-August. In fact, at the National Day Rally speech, PM Lee specifically took the occasion to state Singapore’s position on the “incident;” the tone was clearly conciliatory, but Lee maintained that it was in Singapore’s interests to see the exact situation on the ground in Taipei. Economic and socio-cultural cooperation programs were stressed as harbingers of better political relations.

New Foreign Minister George Yeo sent out strong indications that Singapore intended to “balance the powers” more evenly and even consulted his Chinese counterpart, Li Zhaoxing, more frequently in the lead-up to last year’s UN General Assembly speech. Yeo then visited Beijing just before the Chinese New Year and was received by PM Wen, who then officially invited PM Lee to visit Beijing, likely to officially bury the hatchet.

Chinese President of the National Peoples’ Congress (NPC) and the number three man in the Chinese communist hierarchy made a four-day official visit to Singapore in March at the invitation of Singapore’s Speaker of Parliament and were granted meetings at all the highest levels of the State, from the President and Prime Minister down to Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew. Chinese MFA officials then spoke confidentially that relations were back on track, as though a “new spring” has emerged for Beijing and Singapore. Plans were then made for Lee to visit Beijing officially in early fall and for Wen to reciprocate with a visit to Singapore probably toward the end of the year.

However, a new incident arose when PM Lee, on an official visit to Japan (to Tokyo and the Aichi Expo near Nagoya), declared that Singapore would support Japan’s bid for a permanent seat at the UNSC, but without veto power. The timing jarred Beijing as it was intent on denying Tokyo this bid with the firm support of the two Koreas. Beijing’s unhappiness could be traced to at least three reasons. First, Beijing deemed the timing inappropriate, as it was caught up in the midst of the text-book row and the controversy over Yasukuni; Beijing has always reminded Singapore that it was also harshly occupied by Japanese troops from 1942 until 1945. And while Singapore supports Japan’s UNSC bid, given “Tokyo’s preeminent financial power and economic influence in Asia”, Lee asked Japan to come clean with its war-time history and reconcile with its immediate neighbors.

Second, Beijing is worried that Singapore’s support for Japan’s UNSC seat could snowball and give ASEAN countries (who could then take their cue from Singapore) the green light to support Tokyo openly against the wishes of Beijing. According to a scholar from the Chinese Institutes for Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), China has always been fearful of the “bad leadership” role that Singapore could play within ASEAN, which it believes could then open the door boldly to unfriendly action when others follow Singapore’s lead.

Lastly, the American dimension must have been aroused again in Beijing, given that Washington had voiced support in June for only Japan (and “perhaps another power,” whom one could suspect to be India) to the enlarged UNSC; Beijing has been particularly enraged by the February 19 U.S.-Japan Joint Security Agreement (after the 2+2 meeting in the U.S.), which it sees as an alliance made to counter its own regional role and ambitions. Beijing could have thus suspected the “American tilt” of Singapore once again, after the latter appears to have taken the cue from Washington.

The ultimate test would now come in PM Lee’s visit to Beijing. He has traveled to Japan and India in June and visited Washington last week. In fact, the China visit could seal the reconciliation between him and the Chinese leadership after these two setbacks. Moreover, an indicator of better times ahead would surely come in the form of a Chinese consent to Singapore to start negotiations on a bilateral FTA, which was suspended indefinitely in the aftermath of the Taipei incident.

It is still uncertain how Sino-Singaporean relations will shape up as Singapore and PM Lee would ultimately have to balance powers strategically, while maintaining Singapore’s intrinsic interests, especially as the U.S.-China rivalry intensifies and as Sino-Singaporean relations become increasingly complex and complicated in the coming years.