With no immediate end in sight to the impasse over the seizure of Singapore’s military vehicles in Hong Kong, and amid rising flak from Beijing, the city state’s long-time leaders – reputed for an adroit diplomatic touch – are finding themselves in the unfamiliar position of justifying their foreign policy to citizens at home.
In power since 1959, the People’s Action Party has traditionally faced little domestic dissent over its foreign policy of embracing all major powers regardless of ideology or politics. Singapore has strong ties with both China and the United States.
The pragmatic “maximum number of friends” approach was first championed by Singapore’s late founding leader Lee Kuan Yew as an essential bulwark for small states. Today, it remains at the heart of the foreign policy of his son and current premier, Lee Hsien Loong.
But faced with opacity following the November 23 seizure of nine Terrex military vehicles by Hong Kong customs, and amid growing frustrations brought on by Chinese state media’s increasingly regular insults towards Singapore for not siding with Beijing in the South China Sea territorial dispute, some commentators are beginning to question their leaders’ ability to maintain the country’s diplomatic balancing act.
In a scathing online commentary this week, former newspaper editor turned government critic P.N. Balji described the seizure in Hong Kong as Beijing “using a proxy territory to strike on its behalf and behest”.
“Expect China to squeeze this issue dry to get maximum advantage out of it... the time has come for a serious review of Singapore’s art of diplomacy,” he said.
Others blamed the current leadership for lacking the diplomatic finesse of founding father Lee Kuan Yew and predecessor Goh Chok Tong. The younger Lee’s decision to tighten security cooperation with the US in recent years has also been blamed for China’s rising rancour.
In 2015, Singapore and the United States signed an enhancement of a security agreement first put in place in 1990. From 2013, the city state started hosting rotationally deployed US littoral combat ships and later state-of-the-art P-8 Poseidon spy planes. Military observers say Singapore has served as a vital launching point for US assets into the disputed South China Sea, where the Western power regularly conducts “freedom of navigation” exercises.
But foreign policy experts say criticism of Lee’s foreign and defence policies is unfair.
“Overall there is very little that any Singapore leadership can do to avoid China’s unhappiness unless they want and are willing to accommodate Beijing very substantively like Rodrigo Duterte, Najib Razak or Prayut Chan-o-cha,” said Chong Ja Ian, a Chinese foreign policy expert at the National University of Singapore. He was referring to the leaders of the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand.
All three countries – including US treaty ally the Philippines – are large beneficiaries of China’s so-called “chequebook diplomacy”. Najib and Duterte – both leaders of claimant states in the South China Sea dispute – have agreed to China’s request for the issue to be settled bilaterally.
The impounding of the troop carriers has also put the spotlight on Singapore’s military ties with Taiwan, which stretch back to 1975 – fifteen years before Singapore established formal diplomatic ties with Beijing. The vehicles were seized as they were returning to Singapore following exercises in Taiwan – considered by Beijing as a renegade province.
When Singapore and China established formal relations in 1990, the Lion City pledged to adhere to the “one China” policy even as it continued military training in Taiwan, mostly out of public view. The seizure triggered a fresh wave of finger wagging from China about Singapore’s military ties with Taipei.
There are few clues as to why China has seized upon the issue. One obvious answer, analysts say, is to press Singapore to cease training in Taiwan and to further constrict Taiwan’s diplomatic ties. Singapore also conducts military training in the US, Germany, India, Australia, Brunei and Thailand.
“Part of this is about Taiwan, obviously,” Chong said. “Beijing tacitly accepted this type of Taiwan-Singapore relationship so long as it was low key, but it is less likely to do so now as it is becoming more powerful and willing to be forceful – in addition to its leadership wanting to look strong on foreign policy.”
Yu Jie, a research fellow at the London School of Economics’ IDEAS foreign policy think tank, said the episode displayed “a significant expectation gap” about bilateral ties between Singaporean and Chinese leaders. Chinese leaders expect Singapore to solely function under its orbit because of historical intra-elite ties with the majority Chinese island nation, she said.
“Beijing seems to forget Singapore is a modernised city state that has to strike a fine balance and to survive between two great powers,” Yu said.
“It is inevitable that Singapore has to rely on the US’ security umbrella within the region, and treat China as a substantial economic partner.”
‘NOT AGAINST YOU’
Singaporean leaders, who this week briefed parliament about the seizure, stressed that the country was not against China’s military and economic rise.
“We cannot be at the beck and call, or act at the behest of any single superpower. Let us be ourselves. If that means from time to time I have to have a difference with you, so be it. But I am not against you, I am completely in support of your rise,” Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said.
Meanwhile, Singaporean military and civilian leaders have framed the incident as an isolated one, rather than a calculated move by Beijing. In Parliament, Balakrishnan said the government was only in contact with Hong Kong authorities over the incident, not mainland officials.
But for some ordinary citizens, the stand off has been a reminder of Singapore’s vulnerability.
“These basic principles we learned as children...how can you take something that is not yours?” said Alvin Oon, a self-employed Singaporean who this week posted a lighthearted song about the saga on YouTube.
“But here we have somebody else who is bigger than us taking our things away.” ■