Sino-Singapore bonhomie bodes well

Sino-Singapore bonhomie bodes well

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, left, shakes hands with China's President Xi Jinping in Beijing, during a meeting to patch up relations following months of tensions over China’s claims in the South China Sea. (AP photo)
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, left, shakes hands with China's President Xi Jinping in Beijing, during a meeting to patch up relations following months of tensions over China’s claims in the South China Sea. (AP photo)

Make no mistake, Singapore will always be a powerful catalyst of Asean-China relations. Despite the hullabaloo resulting from diplomatic spats between Singapore and China last year, the two have now reset their relations, recognising the new reality of the emerging strategic landscape in the region and elsewhere.

From now on, Singapore-China relations will be transformative, with a tag line of "add value" regarding what they can do together. Before Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's visit to China last week, there were doubts about such prospects, but they were quickly dispelled. As Mr Lee put it, in the past, when China had just began to modernise, Singapore was able to help. Now it is a different ball game, as China has become the world's No.2 economic power. Singapore can still help but in a different way. Given the cultural affinity between the two nations and their peoples, they could easily do that especially when they are backed by such a high-level stamp of approval.

Indeed, Singapore's strategic value for China is both immediate and long-term. As far as the region is concerned, Asean members are relieved to witness the rapid improvement of Singapore-China ties. Senior Asean officials have already voiced optimism about more Asean-China co-operation in the future. During his visit, Mr Lee told his counterpart Premier Li Keqiang that Singapore would forge stronger Asean-China relations. Li also wants next year's Asean chair to bring new vitality to co-operation.

Beyond the diplomatic pleasantries and assurances, China wants to have stable relations with all Asean members. During the Aquino administration in the Philippines from 2010-2016, Beijing went through its worst period of relations with Asean since ties were established in 1992. China learned first-hand that uncertainty in the domestic development of a member country can easily impact bilateral ties and subsequently influence Asean.

Under Aquino, the Philippines usually disassociated itself with "the Asean way," relying mainly on US support in the South China Sea dispute. However, with the dramatic turnaround of Philippine-China ties under President Rodrigo Duterte, the overall atmosphere of diplomatic discourse between Asean and China has been more cordial and fruitful, leading to tangible results in the negotiations over a code of conduct (COC) for the South China Sea.

Since Singapore's coordinating role is winding down over the next nine months, the island state wants to ensure that there is substantive progress in the drafting of the COC. As a non-claimant to the disputed territory, Singapore can help to moderate Asean-China relations and push them to a higher level.

Prior to Singapore, Thailand's role in coordinating Asean-China relations, also as a non-claimant in the dispute, was highly successful because of its ability to balance the interests of all parties concerned.

From Singapore's vantage point, any perception of unhealthy relations with China -- or for that matter with other major powers -- means further depreciation of its strategic value and bargaining power. Last week's visit gave Singapore-China ties a big boost due to the urgency and importance that both sides accorded to demonstrating their new-found confidence and the closeness of their friendship and co-operation.

Mr Lee's sojourn to China is linked to his scheduled visit to Washington next month. It remains to be seen what will transpire during this trip. On Mr Lee's previous visit to Washington in August 2016, Singapore strongly supported the US rebalance of its policies on Asia and hordes of other issues, including maritime security. However, with the Trump administration, the common transnational challenges that both countries pledge to work on together, including climate change -- one of the major pillars of co-operation -- could be problematic.

At this juncture, Singapore has become one of the Asean members that strongly back China's Belt and Road initiative, dispelling all earlier doubts that the initiative disowned the world's most important international port facilities. When Singapore takes over as Asean chair next year, there could be further progress in the alignment of the initiative with the revised Asean Masterplan of Connectivity. Foreign Minister Wang Yi proposed setting up a director general-level committee with Asean in April 2013 to do just that, but four years have elapsed without any further progress.

One more important element is Singapore's high-value support of China's global role. When a small country endorses and feels secure with the world's biggest country, both countries look good in the eyes of the international community. However, whenever their ties turn sour, the big country would be viewed as a bully. That has already put to rest.

Finally, better Singapore-China ties will have positive ripple effect on boosting China's profile at the East Asia Summit (EAS) in November at Clark airbase. President Donald Trump has said he will attend the leader-only strategic platform. Next year, Singapore will take the lead in shaping the EAS summit's agenda.

For China to have a respected and recognised role in the emerging regional architecture, it cannot afford to have adverse relations with the region's smaller countries.

Singapore is high-value asset for China as far the regional security order is concerned.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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