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A Commentary on the Evolving Sino-Singaporean Relationship

Staff Writer

By Jia Yao Kuek ‘19

· Jia Yao Kuek

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone. If they reflect the naivety of a 19 year-old college student, then your kind understanding is sought.

The recent exchange of statements between Global Times Editor-in-Chief Hu Xijin and Singapore’s ambassador to China, Stanley Loh, has cast a spotlight on Sino-Singaporean ties. China’s Foreign Ministry also waded into the dispute on the 28th of September, blaming an unspecified “individual nation” for fanning tensions in the South China Sea. Hawks in the Chinese political and military establishment have expressed stronger views, with Prof Jin Yinan (director of the strategic research institute at the PLA’s National Defense University) even calling for sanctions towards Singapore. Despite these gestures, Chinese criticism has mostly been communicated through unofficial, albeit mainstream, media channels, and the bellicose statements of a few individuals should not be misinterpreted as the stance of the Chinese government and its leaders.

At its core, the Sino-Singaporean relationship remains a strong one, particularly in the economic sphere. These economic ties work both ways: China is Singapore’s largest trading partner, while Singapore is China’s third-largest trading partner in ASEAN. In addition, Singapore was the largest foreign investor in China in both 2013 and 2014, with $7.23 billion and $5.8 billion of investment respectively.

In the security sphere, Singapore has repeatedly voiced its worries about the Chinese military buildup on the South China Sea, with Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently calling for a rule-based regional and international order. However, these concerns should not detract from the increasingly close bilateral ties in other areas, such as the frequent visits by PLA (Navy) ships to Singapore’s Changi Naval Base, or the bilateral Four-Point Consensus reached in November 2014. This agreement aims to build up bilateral defense cooperation and mutual trust on respective security concerns, through high-level meetings, joint training exercises, and increased working-level exchanges.

The Sino-Singaporean relationship must also be assessed from the wider regional perspective-- within an evolving Sino-ASEAN partnership. ASEAN is by no means a monolithic bloc, and its often-vacillating stance reflects the divergent national interests of its diverse membership. Within ASEAN, China remains the primary supplier of economic and military assistance to Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar. Conversely, China also maintains territorial disputes in the South China Sea with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei. Such priorities are not mutually exclusive. Philippine President Duterte has repeatedly vowed to advocate for the Philippines’ territorial claims in the South China Sea, even as he has aggressively courted Chinese economic investment since being elected. China’s well-touted ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative aims to develop increased links between China and its neighbours in Southeast Asia; however, these strengthening economic partnerships can easily lead to demands for foreign policy concessions. Ultimately, increased Chinese engagement with ASEAN has to be assessed against US President Obama’s rebranded ‘Rebalance to Southeast Asia’. These growing economic and security links between the US and Southeast Asia have been underscored by Obama’s personal diplomatic commitment to the region, having made nine visits to Southeast Asia during his presidency (by far the most of any US president). While ASEAN’s course ahead is uncertain, Singapore will certainly play a key role in the development of the China-ASEAN relationship, as it serves as the country coordinator for China-ASEAN relations.

Ultimately, China and Singapore continue to maintain close and mutually beneficial ties. The roving eye of Chinese mainstream media (and the Global Times in particular) has shifted amongst partners and competitors alike, for example with its criticism in July of Australia as being a ‘paper cat’, despite its role as a major supplier of raw materials to China. In sum, the significance of this recent incident should not be over-exaggerated. Other incidents such as Singapore’s recently signed defense agreement with the US, which crucially allowed for a US P-8 Poseidon plane to be deployed in Singapore, was met with little public criticism by the Chinese government.

However, all bilateral relationships are founded on mutual trust; and the Chinese government has also acknowledged as much, by calling for the Sino-Singaporean relationship to be based on mutual respect for core interests. Neutrality cannot be mistaken for silent acquiescence, and each country’s expectations of its partners should be adjusted accordingly. On the basis of these sovereign rights, future foreign policy disagreements, no matter how severe, should not descend into mutual incrimination and acrimony.

In the bigger picture, China’s actions reflect a more assertive foreign policy that it believes is commensurate to its increased global status. This can be summed up in the increasingly voguish term: Sino-speak. This term exemplifies how Chinese historical exceptionalism continues to influence its foreign policy goals, even as it leverages on the existing Westphalian international system. Despite the recent economic slowdown, China continues to play a large global economic role, as reflected in the recent addition of the Chinese yuan to the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights currency basket. This substantial economic presence is even more strongly felt within its immediate neighbourhood, particularly Southeast Asia. Nonetheless, no country exists in isolation, and given China and the CCP’s overriding domestic priorities, it would be mutually beneficial for China to maintain a harmonious relationship with its smaller regional partners, and with ASEAN as a whole.

To conclude, Singapore would have noted the concerns that have been raised - both by elements of the Chinese establishment, as well as by the Chinese people - in this recent incident. Ultimately, the Sino-Singaporean bilateral relationship remains close, and is evolving, acknowledging renewed differences in some areas, while advancing closer efforts at cooperation in others.

PLA – People’s Liberation Army

ASEAN – Association of Southeast Asian Nations

US – United States

IMF – International Monetary Fund

CCP – Chinese Communist Party

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