China and Singapore set for new relationship
Best way forward for both countries is to acknowledge differences and not allow them to affect the many opportunities for both in economic development
Diplomatic observers watched the visit of Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to China carefully because of its sensitive timing – not long before the 19th Communist Party congress and his visit to traditional ally the United States, and in the wake of recent strained ties with Beijing over its South China Sea territorial claims and other issues. But what really set the visit apart is an apparent reset of relations by both sides which has economic and strategic significance for the region.
Beijing left no doubt about the importance of bilateral relations when four top leaders with met Lee – President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang, National People’s Congress chairman Zhang Dejiang and anti-corruption tsar Wang Qishan.
On his previous visit in 2013 Lee met only Xi and Li. The high-level reception this time was not the only coded message that both sides want to reset relations, with Xi referring to a “new historical chapter” and Lee reportedly pledging to work closely with China on taking relations to a new level.
The geopolitical situation will not change overnight. The fundamental issues facing Sino-Singapore relations are real and not so easy to resolve. Singapore will not abandon its relations with the US and Taiwan to please China. It cannot afford to be a fair-weather friend, or its future security will be compromised.
But China’s approach to Singapore is changing, in line with greater emphasis by Xi on ties with regional countries and his launching of the “Belt and Road Initiative”, China’s strategy for trade growth. From the reception the Singapore party received, it is clear Beijing is reaching out and sees long-term strategic value in a sound Asean relationship, with its 10 Asian states as members.
In the past Singapore, particularly under Lee Kuan Yew, cultivated a unique position of significant influence in major power politics. But the rise of China is forcing Singapore to recalibrate the fine line it is destined to walk forever to stay on good terms with both Beijing and Washington.
The best way forward for both countries is to acknowledge their differences and not allow them to affect the many opportunities for each in economic development, especially in the belt and road plan. Pragmatism serves the best interests of both countries.
Evidence of resilience in bilateral ties is to be welcomed globally and regionally. After all, as one mainland media outlet observed, Singapore not only remains a bridge between China and the West, but is also the current coordinator of China-Asean relations, and will assume the presidency of Asean by rotation next year.