THE meeting between China’s President Xi Jinping and Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on July 6 ahead of the G20 meeting in Germany shows the will of these two nations to improve ties, strained a year ago.
But it may take a long time for mutual trust to return.
This unannounced summit came within two weeks after Chinese Premier Li Keqiang accepted Lee’s invitation to visit Singapore, following several meetings at various levels earlier in bid to repair ties.
From a YouTube video posted on the website of Singapore’s Prime Minister’s Office about the meeting that took place in Hamburg, it could be deduced that Lee had initiated it.
But nothing solid came out of it. Both talked about the importance for closer bilateral relations and cooperation in a wide range of areas, as reflected in their state media reports.
China’s state-run Xinhua news agency quoted Xi as saying “China is ready to work with Singapore to enhance bilateral partnership.”
Xi voiced his hope the two countries would support each other on issues of common concerns.
According to The Straits Times of Singapore, Lee and Xi “affirmed the substantive bilateral relationship, frequent high-level exchanges and good progress made in bilateral cooperation.”
“They discussed how Singapore could work with China to implement the Belt and Road initiative, including the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative, which has achieved good progress in financial services and aviation connectivity.”
What had caused the strain?
Singapore and China had enjoyed close ties before 2016, particularly when the city state’s first premier Lee Kuan Yew – who often offered advice to China on economic development – was still alive.
In fact, Singapore-China ties were riding high two years ago. In late 2015, Singapore hosted the first historic China-Taiwan summit since 1949, with Xi meeting Taiwan’s then president Ma Ying-jeou.
But ties took a dip last year following a series of diplomatic spats in September 2016 over Singapore’s “anti-China” stance in the South China Sea disputes.
Singapore had angered Beijing for siding with the United States and China’s rival claimants on the waterway, in which China has laid sovereign claim on 90% of the area.
In November last year, relations turned frosty when Hong Kong seized nine Singaporean infantry carrier vehicles en route from Taiwan on a container ship that had been used in military exercises in Taiwan.
China’s displeasure with Singapore was evident when Beijing did not invite Lee for the Belt and Road summit in Beijing. As the Lion City is a major trading partner of China, Lee’s absence was unusual.
Twenty nine leaders, including Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, attended the meeting to discuss the Xi-led initiative that involves investments of about US$1 trillion in the construction of infrastructure in 64 countries.
However, Singapore’s proactive steps in recent weeks have helped in easing tension with China. And Beijing has responded positively.
Xi’s meeting with Lee shows that both sides have realised it is not in their interests to allow ties to deteriorate.
“There is no necessity for the two countries to go against each other.
“By working together and complementing each other, they can achieve mutual benefits – with Singapore accessing the huge Chinese market and China availing itself of the services of yet another global financial centre,” says Dr Oh Ei Sun, principal adviser of Malaysia’s Pacific Research Centre.
Dr Oh notes that even during the “slightly antagonistic” period, bilateral trade and investment activities have not slowed down.
China is still Singapore’s largest trading partner, while the Lion City remains the second largest investor in China.
Since the early 1990s, Singapore has been involved in China’s economic development. It helped build an industrial park in 1994 in Suzhou and develop the northern port of Tianjin. Its latest project is in Chongqing to boost the regional logistics hub.
Now faced with international uncertainty and an unreliable ally in the United States, there is more reason for Singapore not to isolate itself from the world’s second largest economy.
Indeed, China’s Belt and Road initiative can provide abundant opportunities for Singapore’s companies and its financial institutions.
But a research showed that among Asean’s eight recipients, Singapore has secured the least in Belt and Road investments.
In addition, tourism will be boosted if bilateral ties with China are strong. This has been shown in Cambodia, Malaysia and the Philippines.
As the world’s biggest spenders, outbound Chinese tourists spent US$261bil (RM1.12 trillion) last year, according to Xinhua.
For China, mending ties with Singapore carries a geopolitical dimension.
Singapore will be the rotating chairman for Asean next year and it might be able to exert influence on the Asean Summit, which will inevitably touch on South China Sea where Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines have laid their claims on, with China.
Ships transporting the energy requirements of China have to pass through the Straits of Melaka and use Singapore’s port.
In dealing with the city state, China will have to be realistic in its expectations.
Singapore, an international financial centre, is unlikely to change its policy of seeking a security alliance with the United States while pursuing economic ties with China.
“Changing policy stance to placate the Chinese is highly unlikely as Singapore holds the freedom of navigation and rule of international law quite dear to its survival and prosperity,” Dr Oh tells Sunday Star.
It is unlikely to change its security relationship with the United States, which relies on Singapore as a supply base for naval operations.
A no-change stance of Singapore could be discerned from an interview Lee gave to Singapore press on July 10 when wrapping up his working visit to Germany:
“Singapore has a responsibility to highlight issues which concern it, deal with them, and push its position on them.
“Doing so is particularly crucial when Singapore’s security, safety, or fundamental interests regarding its position in the world – such as the rule of international law and the peaceful resolution of disputes – are at stake.”
But Singapore will have to handle the South China Sea disputes with care as a reheating up of these disputes would hinder its efforts to re-establish strong ties with China.
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