Some diplomatic observers might see two recent high-level meetings – between Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (李克強) and Singaporean Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum’s Summer Davos, in Dalian, a fortnight ago and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) and Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in Hamburg, Germany, ahead of the G20 summit last weekend – as signs of improving Sino-Singapore ties following a series of diplomatic spats in the past year.

But I am more cautious about developments. The future between the two nations still seems unstable, despite four decades of warmth and a “special relationship” rarely seen in the region.

It’s best to divide Sino-Singapore relations into three historic eras since the founding of the People’s Republic – the Mao era, the Lee Kuan Yew era, and the post-Lee Kuan Yew era, which has only just begun.

From 1949 to Mao’s death in 1976, relations were varying degrees of hostile between the radical communist giant and its smaller but staunchly capitalist neighbour. China’s state media scolded Lee Kuan Yew, the city state’s founding father, as Asia’s “running dog of US and British imperialism”.

But then, a landmark visit to Beijing by Lee in 1976 and a reciprocal trip to the island by China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping
(鄧小平) in 1978 marked the advent of a harmonious period that lasted until the Singaporean patriarch died in 2015.

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Beijing had many reasons to see Singapore and Lee as a true friend.

First, Singapore, along with its Asian peers Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan, played a critical role in the success of Deng’s openness policy, pioneering foreign direct investment in the country.

Second, Singapore has played a special role facilitating China’s relations with the West, and the US in particular. This was invaluable when Beijing suffered economic sanctions and political isolation imposed by the US-led West in the wake of the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989.

Third, Lee played a unique role in brokering contacts across the Taiwan Strait. The city state hosted the 1993 Wang-Koo talks, the first direct contact between the two sides since 1949, and the historic summit between Xi and his then Taiwanese counterpart Ma Ying-jeou in 2015.

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Fourth, Beijing has long found inspiration from Singapore’s rapid economic development and tight political controls, considering it a model for its own development.

China’s nationalistic leaders saw Lee’s appeal to Confucianism and his so-called “Asian values” that reject Western-style liberal democracy as further justification of Beijing’s authoritarian rule.

However, such values are fading away. Beijing abandoned its long policy of supporting a strong US presence in the region to allow it to focus on economic development. China’s dramatic foreign policy shift to redefine its role, from Deng’s “low-key” diplomacy to Xi’s high-profile China Dream, is challenging America’s seven-decades-long narrative and dominance in Asia.

Now China’s geopolitical calculus is at odds with Singapore’s long-standing policies – its close military relationship with Taiwan, its desire for a unified voice for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, its free navigation policy for the South China Sea, its pro-US diplomacy and its hosting of the US military.

Sino-Singapore relations will be hard-pressed to stay stable as the city state walks a geopolitical tightrope between world’s two biggest and most powerful nations.

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