The Singapore Government had sought a “formal invitation” from China for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to attend the recent One Belt One Road (OBOR) forum in Beijing. The Chinese, however, apparently declined to extend such an invitation, according to a report by Bloomberg.
The forum in Beijing saw 29 heads of states, including several from Asean countries, being invited to attend the event.
OBOR is China’s ambitious plan to rebuild the ancient Silk Road trade route through a network of new ports, railways and roads across the world.
While a few countries did not attend the Beijing meeting, the absence of Singapore’s Prime Minister has focused questions on the relationship between the Southeast Asian nation and the Government of Xi Jinping.
Bloomberg reports (Friday) that “China views Singapore as being less supportive of Xi’s plan because unlike other countries that announced their leaders would attend without requiring a formal invitation, Singapore sought an invite, according to people familiar with the matter.”
“They asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the information,” the Bloomberg report says.
The request by Singapore seems to be confirmed by Singapore’s representative at the forum, Minister of National Development, Lawrence Wong.
When asked by reporters on the sidelines of the forum why PM Lee was not attending the forum, Mr Wong would say only that “the invitation was decided by the Chinese”, according to the Straits Times.
“It was the first official acknowledgement that [PM] Lee was not invited,” said the South China Morning Post (SCMP) on Thursday. “In sharp contrast, regional counterparts including Malaysia’s Najib Razak, Indonesia’s Joko Widodo and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte prominently highlighted their participation in the summit on social media.”
Neither Singapore nor China has given official explanations on why PM Lee was not officially invited, but observers point to recent events which left China wondering whose side Singapore is on.
It all started with “the public exchange of words between Stanley Loh, the Singaporean envoy in Beijing, and the state-linked Global Times newspaper over a report on the city state’s position on the South China Sea dispute during last year’s Non-Aligned Movement Summit,” SCMP said.
It then escalated to the seizure of 9 Singapore military vehicles by Hong Kong last November. This followed remarks made by PM Lee in Washington, DC, during a visit to the White House where he was feted by then US President Barack Obama.
“As President, your personal leadership and decision to rebalance to Asia has won America new friends and strengthened old partnerships, including with Singapore,” PM Lee said during a toast to Mr Obama.
He went on to describe the American leader as “America’s first Pacific President”.
China saw this as Singapore becoming an “ally” of the US.
Chinese officials have also publicly chided Singapore for trying to influence Asean countries to support the International Court of Justice’s decision over the South China Sea issue, an allegation which Singapore has strenuously denied.
“The cooler political relationship between Singapore and China could have ripple effects which influence economic and trade relations,” said Lu Jianren, a researcher at the China-Asean Research Institute at China’s Guangxi University. “Singapore has been less proactive to work with China while many leaders in the region showed greater enthusiasm that they want Beijing to be more involved in Southeast Asian growth.”
Singapore has, however, said ties between the two countries remain “strong”, and observers say that the foundation of their relationship can withstand this temporary spat.
China is Singapore’s biggest trading partner, while Singapore is China’s second largest investor.
The present cold shoulder from China is not the first time that China has been unhappy with PM Lee.
In 2004, just weeks before PM Lee was sworn-in as the country’s 3rd Prime Minister, he incurred the wrath of the Chinese with a visit to Taiwan, although the trip was described by PM Lee later as a “private and unofficial visit”.
During the visit, then Deputy Prime Minister Lee had offered Singapore as an intermediary in the relationship between Taiwan and China, an offer which upset the Chinese.
“The Taiwan issue is China’s internal affair,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue then. “China has never had, nor does it need to have, any country or person to pass messages between the two sides.”
In fact, China was offended by DPM Lee’s visit itself.
“As the deputy prime minister of Singapore, it doesn’t matter in what capacity or what excuse Lee Hsien-loong uses to visit Taiwan, it seriously violates the Singapore government’s promise to support the ‘one China’ policy and damages the political basis of China-Singapore relations,” Zhang told a news briefing.
“It is also unavoidable that it will produce consequences for relations and cooperation between China and Singapore.”
In his first National Day Rally speech as Singapore’s leader, PM Lee explained his visit, and said he “[regrets] that my visit to Taiwan has caused this severe reaction in China which affected relations.”
“This isn’t going to be the last time our relations with a major friendly power are strained,” PM Lee said.
“We strive for good relations with all countries, but from time to time issues are going to arise and big powers have their own interests and will exercise their influence to get their way. We may be old friends, but when our interests diverge, or even when our approaches to the same problem differ, they have to put their interests first and their approaches first and so must we. This is a reality of the compelling pressures of international politics and of national interests and we must remember this.”
But 10 years later, China’s position on an intermediary seemed to have changed as PM Lee’s government brokered a historic meeting between Taiwan’s then President Ma Ying-jeou, and Chinese Premier Xi Jinping, in Singapore.
So, what PM Lee says is right – Singapore, being a small country with limited clout, will always be expected to “toe the line” when it comes to the interests of bigger powers whose position on issues will change according to the prevailing time and tide of events.
Singapore will just have to negotiate and navigate the best possible outcome for its people in such instances.