Why Singapore should not be surprised that relations with China have changed
William Zheng says the city state’s recent troubles with Beijing – over issues including the South China Sea and Taiwan – reflect the story of a world power coming into its own
Sino-Singaporean relations have been on a sharp downward trend since Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ( 習近平 ) visit to the city state in 2015. The tiny republic’s stand on the South China Sea dispute and its close relationship with the West, in particular the United States, have caused China to single it out for some stern criticism. One Chinese general called for sanctions on Singapore and the Global Times ranted that Beijing should take tough action on Singapore “when it crosses the line”.
Beijing’s actions have been akin to those of a great Go (weiqi) master orchestrating a comprehensive campaign on all fronts. The foreign ministry has not only issued typically straightforward rebuttals of Singapore’s statements, it also carried out a quick strike in Hong Kong in November, seizing nine Terrex infantry fighting vehicles belonging to the Singapore Armed Forces.
Watch: Singapore’s military vehicles seized in Hong Kong
It did not end there. There was no meeting last year of the Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation, the highest-level institutional mechanism of Sino-Singaporean cooperation. The initiative was launched in 2003 by then Chinese premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) and Singapore’s prime minister, Goh Chok Tong. Currently, it is co-chaired by Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean and Chinese Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli (張高麗). Zhang is a member of the Politburo Standing Committee.
This paper has reported that Singapore casinos are also at risk of a Beijing crackdown over capital flight through potential misuse of the UnionPay network.
Many Singaporeans were shocked and concerned, especially those working and investing in China. Some have complained that they had been pressed to take a stand on the South China Sea dispute on various occasions. They said they felt bullied and wonder why, when Singapore’s troops have been in Taiwan for years with no untoward consequences, things have changed.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang (陸慷) gave a clue in his press briefing, reminding all countries to respect the “one China” principle and asking the “relevant party” (implying Singapore) to respect the laws of Hong Kong. His words suggest that the decision of impounding Singapore’s military vehicles has something to do with Taiwan, given that the equipment was on its way back to Singapore after military exercises on the island.
It is worth remembering that Singapore and Taiwan’s military cooperation was initiated by Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father, and Chiang Ching-kuo, then the Kuomintang leader. The Chinese mainland was still undeveloped at the time, and had yet to start its “open door” policy and the great reforms that resulted in 30 years of spectacular economic growth. But times have changed.
Taiwan is again ruled by the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party. Its president, Tsai Ing-wen, failed to mention the “1992 consensus” – a reference to the “one China” principle – by name in her inauguration speech, which Beijing called an “incomplete answer”.
Beijing is becoming increasingly anxious as US-Taiwan relations begin to warm up following Donald Trump’s US presidential election victory. Tsai’s recent transit stop in Houston, and her meeting with US Senator Ted Cruz, on her way to Central America, provoked China’s ire, coming after her congratulatory phone call to President-elect Trump rocked decades of US policy towards China.
Given this backdrop, it is not surprising that China is preparing to step up the pressure on Taiwan, both diplomatically and militarily. Its aircraft carrier is patrolling near the island and it has just won over Taiwan’s diplomatic ally Sao Tome and Principe, which is just the beginning of this effort. Seizing Singapore’s military equipment falls well into the plan, sending a clear signal to Taiwan’s friends to sever their military links, or risk serious consequences.
Besides that, Beijing also hopes to teach a lesson to Singapore, which was seen as backing the international tribunal’s ruling on the South China Sea last year. A less vocal Singapore would mean China could better handle the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in future over any South China Sea talks.
The incident also shines a light on Hong Kong’s unique status in China. Its role as a special administrative region allows Beijing to use it strategically as a buffer, to avoid direct confrontation with Singapore. With the Hong Kong government handling, or rather fronting this case, any future meetings between Vice-Premier Zhang and Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Teo could be conducted in a more amicable atmosphere. That is thoughtful.
China has become a real world power – politically, economically and militarily. It has made it very clear that the South China Sea and Taiwan are core interests, and there is no room for manoeuvre. Interestingly, Xi has consolidated enough power to become China’s “core leader”. Times have changed. Clearly, it’s necessary to think twice before touching on such sensitive core interests.
William Zheng is a veteran journalist who has served and led major Singapore and Hong Kong media organisations in his 20-year career