Cary Huang
SCMP Columnist
On Reflection
by Cary Huang
On Reflection
by Cary Huang

What’s really making Beijing angry with Singapore?

The argument between Singapore’s ambassador to China and the editor-in-chief of the nationalistic Chinese tabloid Global Times is less about specific actions and deeds as it is about Beijing’s growing disappointment with the tiny Asian city-state.

Until recently, the two nations – which share deep ethnic and cultural bonds – had enjoyed what was often described as a special relationship. This was manifest most clearly in two recent events – China’s rare high-profile treatment of the death of Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew in March last year and Singapore’s hosting of the historic meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ) and his Taiwanese counterpart Ma Ying-jeou last November.

Journalists wait outside the entrance of the Shangri La in Singapore – chosen as the host of the historic meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Taiwanese counterpart Ma Ying-jeou last November. File photo

But since then, mistrust has grown, spurred by the escalating rivalry between China and the United States and the landmark ruling by The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on July 12 denying Chinese claims to huge swathes of the South China Sea.

The Global Times, which is affiliated to People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party, reported on September 21 that Singapore wanted to include the Philippines’ position on The Hague arbitration ruling on the final communique issued by the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Venezuela this month.

Troubled waters: Beijing’s ‘anger’ lurks beneath surface of Singapore-Global Times South China Sea row

But Stanley Loh, Singapore’s envoy to China, rejected the Global Times report, issuing two open letters to the newspaper’s editor-in-chief Hu Xijin this week.

Seemingly at the centre of the argument is whether the Singapore delegation had tried to add an endorsement of the tribunal’s ruling to the summit’s final document.

Pro-China protesters demonstrate against the ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague against Beijing's extensive claims in the South China Sea. Photo: AFP

But what’s really causing the friction is Beijing’s growing intolerance of Singapore’s diplomatic approach to China. The public spat over the Global Times is just a trigger. The disagreements have been simmering for a long time. Beijing believes the island state has been playing both China and the US cards to advance its own interests.

Chinese culture requires friends to help each other. In view of its traditional friendship with Singapore, Beijing hopes the island state will use its unique role in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and its influence in the region to help China solve its disputes with neighbours. At the very least it wants Singapore to remain neutral.

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But Singapore’s gestures on the ruling have dismayed Beijing. Singaporean officials have spoken repeatedly in support of the ruling, which Beijing rejects as “illegal” and “none binding”. Not only has Singapore supported the ruling – it has made efforts to mobilise international pressure on China.

Beijing is particularly annoyed by Singapore’s attempt to use the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit as a forum to make a statement against China. The NAM was formed during the cold war as an organisation of states that did not want to formally align themselves with either the United States or the Soviet Union. China, though not a member of the 115-member organisation, has long used the forum to assert its role as representative of the developing world. China might not be so bothered were Singapore shouting alone, but because it is leading the charge, it feels offended.

While the quarrel has exposed their division, it is likely a concealed diplomatic effort by Beijing to save their traditional friendship with the island republic from plunging.

A public broadcast of the funeral of the late Singapore founding leader Lee Kuan Yew in Hong Kong. China’s rare high-profile treatment of the death is one example of the strong ties between the countries. File photo

Current leaders treasure the special ties with Singapore. These ties were built by generations of leaders, including the founding fathers of China – Mao Zedong ( 毛澤東 ), Zhou Enlai ( 周恩來 ) and Deng Xiaoping (小平 ) – and of Singapore (Lee Kuan Yew).

Chinese leaders attach great significance to the ethnic and cultural bonds between the city state’s 6 million populace, dominated by ethnic Chinese, and China’s 1.3 billion people.

The Global Times is not an “official” publication and while it can represent the view of “some officials”, it tends to reflect the voice of the hawks in the establishment.

‘Global Times didn’t have journalists at summit’, says Singapore ambassador as row escalates over South China Sea report

It is likely that the paper’s editors wanted the recent reports to reflect the view of “some Chinese officials” – or just as likely, some senior officials wanted to use the paper’s “semi-official” status to air their views in a diplomatically feasible manner.

Either scenario reflects Beijing’s growing disappointment with Singapore, both over the South China Sea disputes and its increasing embrace of Washington. Chinese leaders may have respected the elder Lee, but this does not mean they will automatically give the same favour to his son, Lee Hsien Loong. The open endorsement of the Global Times’ report by a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman is evidence of its disappointment.

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the West Lake State Guest House in Hangzhou ahead of the G20 summit. Photo: AFP

Beijing has no intention on giving up its attempts to draw Singapore into its orbit. It treasures Singapore’s unique role in the region – a role that could help improve China’s relations with Asean and its neighbours – too much to do so.

Blow-by-blow account of the China-Singapore spat over Global Times’ South China Sea report

That is why President Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ) told Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hangzhou ( 杭州 ) in early September, that Sino-Singapore ties had always been one step ahead of China’s ties with other Asean countries.

So while the Global Times episode may highlight the difficulties both sides face in nurturing their traditional friendship, it also reflects China’s intent to keep that relationship ‘special’.

Cary Huang, a senior writer with the South China Morning Post, has been a senior editor and China affairs columnist since the early 1990s