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Why Singapore is a vital cog in China’s foreign policy

City state has played key role as bridge between the Southeast Asian states and Beijing as well as helping to ease tensions with Washington

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 September, 2017, 11:02am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 October, 2017, 6:28pm

Singapore has played a significant role in Beijing’s foreign affairs even though it did not establish official diplomatic relations until 1990 – the last Southeast Asian nation to do so.

Relations between Singapore and China have faced turbulence over the past few months over the South China Sea disputes, even though it has no claim of its own.

More recently, however, Premier Li Keqiang has urged Singapore to “inject new energy” into the relationship between China and Southeast Asia.

Here we take a look at the importance of Singapore with regards to Beijing’s relations with the US and Southeast Asia.

China and Southeast Asia

A founding member of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), Singapore is currently responsible for coordinating dialogue between the bloc and China.

The importance of this role has been heightened since last year after the landmark international tribunal ruling on the South China Sea ruled against most of China’s claims in favour of the Philippines.

China hopes to ‘energise’ relations with Singapore, Asean, Li Keqiang tells Lee Hsien Loong

Singapore’s public call to respect the ruling dismayed Beijing, and this is widely believed to be one of the factors that has strained bilateral relations.

Singapore, an advocate of a united stance for the 10-member bloc, is going to take the chairmanship of Asean next year, and observers believe that Beijing will remain cautious in its handling of its relations with the city state.

Balance of Power

Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew was a strong advocate of the long-standing policy of maintaining a balance of power between the major powers in the region.

He believed this could not only help to ensure peace and stability in the region, but also give more room for small nations to survive and prosper if the major powers could maintain peaceful relations.

In a speech at the gala dinner of the US-Asean Business Council’s 25th anniversary in 2009, Lee told audiences that “the size of China makes it impossible for the rest of Asia, including Japan and India, to match it in weight and capacity in about 20 to 30 years. So we need America to strike a balance”.

Calming influence

When Beijing fired missiles into the waters surrounding Taiwan during the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis between 1995 and 1996, Lee made a public call for calm.

“China’s leaders have referred to me as an old friend. I am an older friend of Taiwan,” Lee later recalled in his memoirs. “If either one is damaged, Singapore will suffer a loss. If both are damaged, Singapore’s loss will be doubled.”

From trade to trains, China and Singapore boost their economic ties

Lee also reminded Washington to think twice before taking action, including economic sanctions, against Beijing.

He said this could have negative effects on not only mainland China but also other regional players, including Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and even Asean itself.

He warned that any confrontation between Beijing and Washington could spell danger for the Asia-Pacific region and hamper the interests of Washington too.

Calls for mutual understanding

Singapore has been carefully playing a role as an honest broker between China and the West.

For Beijing, Singapore – the only country outside China with a majority Chinese population – has offered a particularly attractive model of Western-style economic modernisation in a society with traditional Chinese-style values.

Singapore’s Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat was Lee’s principal private secretary in 1999, when he helped act as a go-between at a time when tensions between Beijing and the US escalated following Nato’s bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and negotiations to ensure China’s entry to the World Trade Organisation failed.

According to Heng, Lee organised separate meetings with Madeline Albright, the US secretary of state at the time, and her Chinese counterpart Tang Jiaxuan.

He told the Americans that it was not in their interest to be adversarial towards China or to treat it as an enemy, while advising the Chinese to tap into the markets, technology and capital of the US to develop the economy.