Pragmatism and poetry: What PM Lee brought to Singapore’s four most important bilateral

The first hiccup occurred in July 2004 when Mr Lee made an unofficial visit to Taiwan about a month before he became prime minister. China’s foreign ministry spokesperson expressed its “strong dissatisfaction” and protest, saying the visit had “hurt the feelings of 1.3 billion Chinese people”.

Singapore upholds a “One China” policy  that sees Taiwan as part of China and opposes unilateral changes to the status quo. Singapore established diplomatic relations with China in 1990 on the basis that its military training programme with Taiwan, which began in 1975, would continue.

A second “downturn” in the relationship occurred in 2016 due to “differences over Singapore’s position on the South China Sea dispute”, and China perceiving that Singapore was “too close to the US”, noted Mr Lye Liang Fook, senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

China claims most of the South China Sea and has overlapping claims with four Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) members – the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam. The Philippines brought its case against China under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and, in July 2016, a tribunal ruled that China’s claim to historic rights within its “nine-dash line” was incompatible with UNCLOS. China rejected the tribunal’s jurisdiction and award.

Explaining the situation at the 2016 National Day Rally, Mr Lee said Singapore was the country coordinator for the Asean-China Dialogue Relations at the time, and “this puts us in a slightly warm seat because each party wants us to side a bit more with them”.

While Singapore has no claims on the South China Sea, “in other ways, we do have a lot at stake and three things matter to us, international law, freedom of navigation and a united ASEAN”, he said.

In November 2016, nine Singapore Armed Forces Terrex infantry carrier vehicles en route to Singapore from Taiwan after a routine training exercise were detained in Hong Kong for about two months.

While the “full story on the Chinese side” behind the episode is not known, S Rajaratnam School of International Studies senior fellow Alan Chong believes it was “opportune” – possibly to send signals to Ms Tsai Ing-wen, newly elected as Taiwan’s president at the time and seen to be more independence-leaning, as well as to Singapore.

The episode, while “unhappy”, is “important because it enables Singapore to tell China that, ‘at times, there will be differences and we will stand firm in terms of our principles. Hope that China can understand where Singapore is coming from’”, said Mr Lye. 

“I think this is important in fostering a more mature and realistic relationship with China,” he said.

“No two countries have got identical interests. But both sides value the relationship so no hiccup has proven to be insurmountable,” said Mr Chin.

The two countries have launched three government-to-government projects: the Suzhou Industrial Park in 1994, Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city in 2008, and Chongqing Connectivity Initiative in 2015. Singapore continues to identify areas that China is interested in, and dovetails them with its own growth and development priorities, said Mr Lye.

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