The death of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, a muscular China and the South China Sea dispute are pushing Sino-Singapore ties into a new chapter
SINGAPORE: Up till about a year ago, relations between Singapore and China could loosely be grouped into two eras: Mao and post-Mao.
In the first, which ran from the founding of People’s Republic in 1949 to 1978, ties between the pair of new nations were mostly cold.
Beijing, under the leadership of Mao Zedong, wanted to increase the loyalty of overseas Chinese to China and did not recognise the existence of an independent Singapore up to 1970.
Singapore feared China’s influence and support for pro-communist elements in its country. It didn’t help that its young prime minister Lee Kuan Yew was attacked by Chinese state propaganda as a “running dog of US and British imperialism”.
In 1978, the second era began. Two years after the death of Mao, new Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping visited Singapore and met Mr Lee.
It paved the way for the end of the previously frosty and detached period, kicking off a fresh age when Singapore was viewed not only as a friend, but also as an early role model in China’s reform and opening up.
Despite occasional hiccups, ties grew stronger, trade spiked and exchanges intensified, culminating in the celebration of 25 years of diplomatic relations last year (2015).
The words of Singapore President Tony Tan Keng Yam to mark the occasion summed up this golden era: “Our pioneer leaders, particularly Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Mr Deng Xiaoping, laid a strong foundation for the bilateral relationship in the 1970s. Over a short span of 25 years, our relations have flourished and the friendship between our two peoples has never been stronger.”
That era is over.
A new normal in Sino-Singapore ties is beginning, characterised by a more pushy China, less wiggle room for Singapore and increased frequency in disputes – large and small.
Three factors account for this transition.
PASSING OF A STRONG MAN
First, the death of Mr Lee last year. As indicated by Dr Tan, the late leader was more than just a participant in Sino-Singapore relations. He was a builder.
His friendship with Deng and later Mr Jiang Zemin, and his keen role as an honest broker in cross-strait relations earned him an exalted status in the eyes of the current Chinese leaders.
In May 2011, then Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping pressed on with a scheduled meeting with Mr Lee, despite the Singapore senior statesman stepping down from Cabinet four days earlier and not holding an official title. The signal was clear: Mr Lee held a special place in Beijing’s eyes.
Indeed, when Mr Lee died, Chinese state media gave extensive coverage rarely seen for foreign leaders, especially those from non-communist states.
Unfortunately, such a unique status is not transferable. Some of the goodwill stored by him for over four decades, across five generations of Chinese leaders, is following him to the grave.
END OF PEACEFUL RISE
Second, Sino-Singapore ties cannot escape the megatrend of an increasingly powerful and assertive China.
In the wake of the Beijing Olympics and global financial crisis in 2008, a more muscular China has chosen to flex its strength more frequently and openly.
While Beijing’s post-Mao diplomacy was governed by Deng’s stated preference to “hide capabilities” or taoguang yanghui, that philosophy has been suspended.
The rise of Mr Xi after 2012, and his platform of a China Dream restoring the country to the pantheon of global powers, made it clear that Beijing was no longer content to play by others’ rules.
Its desire to contest the United States’ narrative and dominance, especially in Asia, has significantly reduced the space and options of smaller players.
Nations like Singapore now have to grapple with the interests of two giants, unlike the simpler post-Cold War days when Beijing was largely content for Washington to set the agenda.
Like it or not, in the new normal, Sino-Singapore relations will need to withstand the stress and pressure of being caught between a superpower and an aspiring one. The Thucydides’ Trap often ensnarls many smaller players.
CHOPPY WATERS IN THE BACKYARD
Third, Beijing and Singapore now have a glaring and thorny issue to tussle with – the South China Sea.
China lays claim to almost all of the sea and although Singapore is not a claimant state, its strong push for freedom of navigation in the waters has created much friction with Beijing.
The recent spat between the Singapore government and Global Times is merely the latest in an ongoing dispute which has shaken bilateral relations.
And the problem is unlikely to go away any time soon. The South China Sea is as much China’s backyard as it is Singapore’s.
ASEAN’s unavoidable role in the issue further locks Singapore into this quarrel with Beijing. After all, membership in the 10-nation bloc is a central feature of Singapore’s foreign policy.
Taken together, the post-Lee era of Sino-Singapore relations promises to be more volatile than the preceding period.
Of course, it will not be totally bleak. It was only a month ago when Mr Xi told Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hangzhou, that Sino-Singapore ties had always been a step ahead of China’s ties with other ASEAN countries.
And it was only a year since the two countries inked a deal to develop a third project in China together.
But there is no running away from a Beijing which is more prickly and confrontational.
It will challenge Singapore’s long-held strategy of making friends with all, and demands on the island nation to choose sides could be on the horizon.
In this new normal, nothing will be easy.
* The writer is author of When the Party Ends, winner of the Singapore Literature Prize 2016, and former China bureau chief of The Straits Times. He is also the founding partner of The Nutgraf, a writing and communications agency.