Several netizens have pointed out that Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his wife, Singaporean sovereign wealth fund Temasek chief executive officer Ho Ching, are positioned in the third row among dignitaries at the Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation (BRF) that was held between Apr 25 and 27 in Beijing, China.

In contrast, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad and his wife stood just four spots away from Chinese premier Xi Jinping, in the first row. Russian President Vladimir Putin stood right beside Xi.

PM Lee’s attendance at the forum came after a conspicuous absence at the inaugural BRF that took place in May 2017.

The forum is part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to restore the ancient Silk Road trading routes and to build new infrastructure around the routes. The Chinese government had invited 29 heads of state and the representatives of 28 other countries to the first Forum in 2017.

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PM Lee, however, had not been among the dignitaries who had been invited to the high-level meeting. Singapore’s national development minister Lawrence Wong later confirmed that the invitations had been decided by China.

PM Lee’s absence at the 2017 forum had been glaring, especially given the fact that the leaders of smaller nations like Fiji and Chile had been present at the event. Political analysts had speculated at the time that tensions between Singapore and China could have been why PM Lee had not been invited to the first BRF.

In 2016, the Chinese Communist Party-controlled Global Times had accused PM Lee of having taken the US’ side after Lee had praised ex-US President Barack Obama for his decision to “re-balance” the Asia Pacific region.

Asserting that China’s “tolerance also should have a limit” and that “Singapore should not push it,” Global Times had cautioned: “Singapore can go and please the Americans, but it needs to do their utmost to avoid harming China’s interests. It needs to be clear and open about its latter attitude.”

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Subsequently, bilateral tensions between Singapore and China grew when Hong Kong customs detained nine Singapore infantry carrier “Terrex” vehicles en route to Singapore from military exercises in Taiwan. The vehicles were finally returned after a tense two months.

China then seemed to have snubbed PM Lee by not having invited him to the inagural BRF, that had been held months after the Terrex incident.

Tensions cooled in September 2017 when Singapore and China partnered on a deal involving the BRI. That month, PM Lee and a delegation of top Singapore ministers made an official visit to China.

Less than two years afterwards, China finally invited PM Lee to the second BRF. This year, all 10 ASEAN leaders, including PM Lee, and 27 world leaders gathered for the high-profile summit.