In the summer of 2000, Jiang Zemin (江澤民) found himself waiting at one of the cavernous halls within the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. The Chinese leader was on hand to receive the former Singapore prime minister Lee Kuan Yew who was visiting the capital. A short but respectful distance away stood a pack of Singapore journalists.

In a gallant attempt to make small talk, Jiang remarked at how similar Singaporeans and Chinese, zhong guo ren, were in appearance. It was almost impossible to tell the two apart, he quipped as he peered at us through his thick trademark glasses. While he might have said it half in jest, it was a statement often repeated in earnest by Chinese leaders during the countless Sino-Singapore meetings covered by this journalist in the past two decades.

The South China Sea shadow over Beijing’s ties with Singapore

Perhaps it was this outward similarity and the implied oneness that in recent weeks partly prompted the strong criticisms – some say outbursts – within China over the island state’s stance on the South China Sea dispute.

Is the vitriol a sign of trouble ahead in the relationship?

The latest salvo against Singapore for its comments on the dispute came from the Chinese vice-minister for foreign affairs, Liu Zhenmin (劉振民). Last Tuesday, the top diplomat said that as a non-claimant state, Singapore should butt out. He also urged Singapore to do better in coordinating dialogue between China and the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean).

After the Hague-based tribunal rejected China’s claims in the dispute, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had said the verdict delivered a strong statement about international law in maritime disputes. During a trip to the United States earlier this month, Lee also told American President Barack Obama that Singapore hoped Washington would remain actively engaged in the region.

The statements have riled people in many quarters.

Chinese diplomat tells Singapore to stay out of South China Sea disputes

Even before the ruling, there were signs China was getting irritated. In June, a Global Times commentary by Chinese Academy of Social Sciences researcher Cheng Bifan ran under the headline “Singapore has picked the wrong target in its balance of power strategy”.

The latest comments against Singapore were a reality check that its long-standing approach of not taking sides was being challenged, said political scientist Ja Ian Chong from the National University of Singapore.

The policy of “not choosing sides” only worked under certain conditions: when relations between China and the US, or when the relationships between either major power and the majority of other regional actors, were stable and relaxed, Chong said.

“If not, then it becomes easy for one of the major powers or both to demand greater partiality from Singapore. Playing to the middle, as Singapore has done, could seem unhelpful or duplicitous in either or both Washington and Beijing.”

China was seeking to modify regional norms that have the US as the dominant power while “Washington and other actors, including Singapore, are more satisfied with the status quo.”

This disjunct “undergirds the dispute about the South China Sea beyond the actual ownership of particular islands and waters. As a result, Beijing’s relations with countries that prefer the status quo will likely be more fraught”, said Chong.

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However, Wang Yiwei from the School of International Relations at China’s Renmin University believed China’s “disappointment” with Singapore stemmed from Beijing’s initial hopes that the island state could play a bridging role not just between China and Asean, but also with the US, the West and the global community.

Singapore had not adequately protected the overall and long-term interests of China and Asean, despite being the coordinator between them, he said. “Instead, Singapore suggested China should accept the tribunal’s ruling. This was a huge turn-off for China,” Wang said.

When it came to the provision of safety and security in the South China Sea, China and the US, “not just the US”, could collaborate, Wang said. “Protecting sovereignty and territorial integrity does not come into direct conflict with providing public goods that will help ensure peace and stability in the South China Sea,” he said.

Singapore needed to display “the wisdom of [former prime minister] Lee Kuan Yew’s era, which provided a better and more cautious balance between China and the US”, to gain the trust of both parties, he said.

But Wang Chong, deputy secretary-general with the Charhar Institute, a Chinese think tank, thought ­
Sino-Singaporean ties would not be fundamentally strained as Singapore’s security alignment with the US was well known.

China’s stronger-than-usual criticism was to be expected, he said, given Beijing’s recent foreign policy posture of “strengthening diplomacy by using stronger language” on countries such as South Korea and Singapore, which have been heavily reliant on America for security but China for continued economic prosperity.

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Chinese internet users have been stinging in their criticisms, labelling Singapore a sycophant of the US, threatening that China will teach it a lesson.

Particularly stinging is the phrase they often use to mock Singapore: “Li Jiapo”, a play on the island’s name in Chinese, substituting the first two Chinese characters in its name for“Li Jia” or the “Lee family”.

Relations between Singapore and China are often touted as special and unique – as exemplified by the close ties between former leaders Deng Xiaoping ( 鄧小平 ) and Lee Kuan Yew.

Ties have also evolved in line with changing needs and development priorities. Last year, the two countries agreed to establish an “all round cooperative partnership progressing with the times”.

But ties have been tested before – such as when Lee Hsien Loong visited Taiwan before he became prime minister in 2004, or when Lee Kuan Yew visited the US in 2010 and called on Washington to play an active role in Asia to balance China. But ties have always rebounded.

So long as Singapore refrains from further comments that might aggravate the situation, analysts believe relations should go back to an even keel. After all, Singapore has already made its position on the South China Sea abundantly clear, and that position – whether their people are similar-looking or not – cannot be anymore different than China’s.

Maria Siow is a Singaporean journalist based in Beijing