Singapore is unlikely to cede to Chinese pressure over how it conducts its foreign policy, Liang Fook Lye writes.
Singapore’s relations with the People’s Republic of China appear to have lurched from one incident to another, suggesting that all is not well with the relationship.
In April 2016, two senior Singaporean diplomats reportedly accused China of meddling in ASEAN’s internal affairs and attempting to divide the regional grouping after Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced that China had reached a four-point consensus with Brunei, Cambodia and Laos on the South China Sea issue. In response, a Chinese vice-foreign minister asserted that China’s intentions had been misunderstood and that China had sought clarification from Singapore on the accusation levelled by the diplomats.
In June 2016, Singapore returned to the spotlight when what was supposed to be a joint foreign ministers’ press conference with Wang Yi and Singapore’s Vivian Balakrishnan after a special ASEAN-China Foreign Ministers’ Meeting ended up with only a solo media appearance by the Chinese minister. Chinese netizens went into overdrive and criticised Singapore – currently the country coordinator for ASEAN-China relations – for not doing enough to forge a consensus on the South China Sea issue.
A few months later, in September, a robust exchange ensued between the Singaporean Ambassador in Beijing and the editor of the hawkish Communist Party publication, the Global Times, over what was perceived to be Singapore’s attempts (when in fact it was ASEAN’s efforts) to revise the Southeast Asia paragraphs in the Non-Aligned Movement Summit’s final documents.
Furthermore, various quarters in China have interpreted Singapore providing its facilities to US Littoral Combat Ships and US P-8A Poseidon maritime surveillance as Singapore standing on the side of the United States to “contain” China. Before this, China was already reportedly irked with Singapore for constantly harping on about the sanctity of the rule of law in resolving disputes such as those in the South China Sea and ‘parroting the US line’ by reiterating the importance of freedom of navigation and overflight in the area.
Most recently, in November 2016, Hong Kong’s Customs and Excise Department seized nine Terrex Infantry Carrier Vehicles belonging to the Singapore Armed Forces. This occurred while the tanks were in transit at Hong Kong’s Kwai Chung Container Terminal, ostensibly on the grounds that they were controlled military items that required special permits. It appeared that APL, the commercial carrier transporting the vehicles, did not comply with certain documentation that led to the seizure.
But there was more to the seizure than just documentation. For the first time, China publicly stated that: “The Chinese side is firmly opposed to any forms of official interaction between Taiwan and countries that have diplomatic relations with us, military exchanges and cooperation included.” China also lodged representations asking Singapore to act in accordance with the relevant laws of Hong Kong and, more importantly, called on Singapore to stick to the One China principle. In other words, alleging that Singapore had contravened the One China principle by continuing with its training facilities in Taiwan (as the vehicles were being transported back to Singapore after such a training exercise).
Many reasons have been offered as to why China has chosen only now to publicly chastise Singapore for contravening the One China principle when it has been well known that Singaporean troops have been training in Taiwan since 1975. They include China wanting to “punish” Singapore for being too outspoken on the South China Sea issue, for standing on the US side against China and for its continued vocal pronouncements on the rule of law. Some have even speculated that China is attempting to test the mettle of Singapore’s leadership in the post-Lee Kuan Yew era.
Whatever the reason, there appears to be an attempt by China to browbeat Singapore into becoming more compliant with China’s wishes or at least into not being too outspoken on certain issues. A more crucial question to ask is what is Singapore’s response likely to be going forward?
For one, Singapore’s immediate goal is to recover the nine Terrex Infantry Carrier Vehicles as expeditiously as possible through quiet but effective diplomacy. But this issue pales in comparison to the overall multi-faceted and multi-level interactions that Singapore and China share whether in terms of trade, investment, educational, cultural or people-to-people exchanges. The two governments have also launched the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative, which is regarded as “the key priority demonstration project” under China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative. This project, launched during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Singapore in November 2015, underscores Singapore’s strong support for Xi’s OBOR.
Second, Singapore will continue to abide by the One China policy. In fact, Singapore has stated that it was precisely because of its support for the policy that it hosted the 1993 Wang Daohan and Koo Chen-fu cross-strait talks and, more significantly, the meeting between Chinese President Xi and then Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou in 2015 during Xi’s state visit to Singapore. Singapore intends to continue its military training in Taiwan as this activity predates Singapore establishing diplomatic ties with China and had proceeded without incident until the vehicle seizure episode.
Finally, contrary to the expectations of some in China, Singapore is likely to continue to conduct its foreign policy based on a hard-nosed assessment of its national interests and according to principles such as the rule of law, freedom of navigation and overflight. These are principles that small states like Singapore, without the luxury of a long history like China, rely on to survive and prosper.