Challenges, opportunities looming in China-Singapore relations
By Xue Li Source:Global Times Published: 2017/1/24
Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said over the weekend that the country's relations with China are "broad and substantial," even though many believe that the bilateral ties are strained due to incidents such as Hong Kong's seizure of nine Singaporean Armed Forces armored vehicles in November. The two countries agreed recently to hold a Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation (JCBC), a mechanism started in 2004 but suspended in 2016, next month. But the future development of China-Singapore relations requires more than a JCBC meeting. Both sides, Singapore in particular, need to do some self-reflection and renew their relationship.
In the South China Sea disputes, Singapore, which is a coordinator for China-ASEAN ties and not a claimant, instigated ASEAN to confront China while China tried to cool the tensions. Singapore seemingly assumed the role of the Philippines under the administration of former president Benigno Aquino III, continuing to stir up the South China Sea waters.
Lee's snubbing China on his trips to the US and Japan in August and September as well as his endorsement of the South China Sea arbitration ruling failed to employ sophisticated balancing tactics and offset his skillful facilitation of the historic cross-Straits meeting between Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou in November 2015.
Singapore has overlooked the implementation of cultural elements in diplomacy with China and abandoned the ASEAN custom of "accommodating the comfort level of each other."
Moreover, Singaporean leaders have neglected cultivating their personal relations with leaders in the Chinese mainland and Taiwan. They attempted to act in the same way as former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew did. But Lee Kuan Yew had garnered the respect and trust of leaders in the mainland and Taiwan before becoming their friend. His suggestions and criticism, even though put forward bluntly, were found to be without implication of hostility.
Lee Hsien Loong made his last visit to China in 2013, and over the past years, he has often shown traces of discontent and criticism of China on public occasions. Many Singaporean diplomats then followed suit. For instance, two senior Singaporean diplomats accused China of attempting to break up ASEAN in April. Singapore's arrogant accusations of and confrontation with China have gone too far.
So far, Singapore has shown no attempt to change its stance over the seizure of the armored vehicles. Earlier this month, Singapore's Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen said the vehicles are the property of the Singaporean government and protected by sovereign immunity under international law, but this doesn't help since the transport of the vehicles is a commercial activity that enjoys no immunity.
China values the cultural and emotional bonds with Singapore. But if Singapore continues with its current policy on China, a possible consequence is that China will abandon emotional attachment and prioritize safeguarding its own interests when dealing with Singapore.
Singapore needs more self-examination to handle its relations with powers like the US and China in a more balanced manner. More attention to Chinese culture, personal relations with Chinese leaders, and bilateral communication is recommended.
For China's part, in recent years its appeal to neighboring countries hasn't increased despite its growing national strength and global influence. Suspicion, worries and fear continue to spread and people are becoming estranged from China.
China needs to reflect on many questions. Whether some of its policies have aggravated negative sentiments? Why is its restraint in the South China Sea disputes seldom noticed and applauded? How can it be more appealing to neighboring countries? It has much to learn in becoming a modern power and to better handle its relations with the smaller neighbors.
To effectively push forward the One Belt and One Road initiative, I recommend making 2017 a year of self-reflection. Neighboring diplomacy has become a top priority for China last year, with many effective measures taken. But there are some improvements to be made.
China needs to take advantage of multilateral frameworks that are binding for itself, give more considerations to others in making foreign policies, and implement more projects that can reach ordinary people in our neighboring countries.
The China-Singapore relationship is multi-faceted. If both sides can handle it properly, it's very likely that the current political setbacks will be turned into opportunities.
The author is director of the Department of International Strategy at the Institute of World Economics and Politics, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. email@example.com