A new chapter for Singapore-Sino ties in the new year

The Year of the Rooster has ushered in two pieces of good news on ties between Singapore and China. First, the highest-level annual bilateral meeting, also known as the Singapore-China Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation, will take place next month. Second, Hong Kong has promised to return Singapore's nine armoured vehicles which were seized two months ago, and these national assets are likely to reach home before Chap Goh Mei, the 15th and final day of Chinese New Year celebrations.

Some academics have described the past year - 2016 - as one in which China faced considerable diplomatic pressure in its neighbourhood. An arbitration case over the South China Sea launched unilaterally by the Philippines consumed much of China's diplomatic resources. What surprised many was that Singapore-Sino relations also seemed to slide.

How serious was the level of unhappiness in China and how far up did it extend? There are differing opinions.

According to some academics, China's top decision makers made no strategic shift in their stance on Singapore-Sino ties. But among foreign officials, negative views of Singapore rose to a peak last year. And among the Chinese media and public, the unhappiness was palpable.

Some concrete examples of their unhappiness include the war of words between the Global Times editor-in-chief and Singapore's Ambassador to China. Online media and netizens in China have also levelled harsh criticism at Singapore and its leaders, and some articles have included detailed analysis to show how China is now showering Malaysia with support in a bid to contain Singapore. There were even accounts of Singaporeans being criticised while travelling in China.

What sparked the unhappiness in China with Singapore?

The Chinese media accused Singapore of "going overboard", "choosing sides" and leaning towards the United States on the South China Sea issue. Singapore's support of trade freedom and strong backing for the Trans-Pacific Partnership also led to accusations that it was aligning with the US' Asia-Pacific pivot, seen as a strategy to contain China's rise.

With a Chinese-majority population, Singapore is, at times, seen as China's "relative". That impression can act as a lubricant in bilateral ties when relations are going well, but when disagreements arise, such expectations of kinship complicate matters and cause the Chinese in China to feel more baffled and unhappy with Singapore.

I considered what Singapore might have done last year to anger the Chinese people. As I researched and thought over what friends told me in conversation, two phrases constantly came to mind - that Singapore was "too talkative" and "too high-profile". Other than that, I can't think of any other thing that could have made Chinese netizens so furious. It is as if Singapore is to blame for every single bad thing that happened to China, and no good would come from us.

So, how did the perception of a "too talkative" and "too high-profile" Singapore come about and was it justified? In all fairness, that is a subjective assessment that not all agree with.

What is important to note is that Singapore and China differ on certain issues. For one thing, Singapore stands firm on the need for countries to resolve disputes according to international law and it has not shied away from stating its position. Singapore has consistently advocated this regardless of the country or issue in question.

Next, Singapore maintains that all countries, big or small, should be treated equally. The members of ASEAN must, to a certain extent, stand on common ground.

By comparison, while China is not against international law and has expressed support for equality for all countries, on specific issues like sovereignty disputes, China advocates resolution through bilateral negotiations and opposes a multilateral approach or the use of legal means.

Thus, there are indeed differences in opinion between Singapore and China but these are more ideological in nature and can be kept under control.

Some in China assert that Singapore is "choosing sides". This is a misunderstanding and a rather far-fetched claim at that. It seems that some media commentators in China have conveniently forgotten that Singapore was the first to show support and actively participate in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and China's One Belt, One Road initiative.

The misunderstandings over Singapore's "attitude change" have at times been laughable and that is especially evident in recent media analyses in China. A few days ago, a People's Daily-linked Weibo micro-blogging account named Xiakedao uploaded an opinion piece titled "Singapore appears to be more sober after hitting a few snags in China".

The piece claimed that Singapore's change in attitude was reflected recently in Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's open criticism of countries pursuing unilateralism as well as his high praise of Chinese President Xi Jinping's eloquent speech in Davos. PM Lee spoke at the EDB Society's Pioneering The Future series forum, where he added that on foreign policy issues, Singapore welcomes China's engagement and its growing influence in the region, and that Singapore hopes to remain a friend of both China and the US.

The writer Xiakedao took these comments as a sign of Singapore's change in attitude. But from a Singaporean perspective, PM Lee's words reiterated an all-too-familiar and consistent position on Singapore's friendships with China and the US, and its welcoming of China's growing influence, points which have been made many times by Singapore leaders.

As for Mr Xi's speech on backing trade freedom, Singapore has also voiced its sincere support of free trade, which clearly does not differ according to circumstances.

So how did the aforementioned "attitude change" come about? Was it, as the Zen Buddhism saying goes, a matter not of the wind or the flag moving, but your mind?

When one considers the differences in culture and approaches taken by the two countries in comprehending issues, one may be able to find the reason behind the misunderstandings among the officials and people in Singapore and China. A key difference concerns how one country focuses on discussing the issue at hand while the other prioritises its understanding of the matter and standpoint.

Take the South China Sea arbitration issue for example. Singapore talked matter-of-factly about legal principles whereas China emphasised the need to consider the issue from the point of view of politics and timing, and thus likely saw Singapore's comments as inappropriate.

Both countries have to safeguard their self-interests but it is implausible to equate that with "choosing sides". Singapore will not take the bait and fall into this trap of discourse, no matter what online commentators say.

It is not because Singapore is afraid of "choosing sides"; it is because we have done no such thing. Singapore has always made clear that it considers choosing sides unwise and not beneficial to any party.

The people in China may say Singapore now "appears to be more sober" but Singaporeans may beg to differ.

However, what is important is that our bilateral ties over the years have proven that the Singapore-Sino partnership is mutually beneficial and win-win.

In today's turbulent global environment, countries with similar ideologies have a stronger need to co-operate. As we mark a new Chinese New Year, I look forward to a new chapter in Singapore-Sino ties that paves the way to a brighter future.

This commentary first appeared in Chinese-language daily Lianhe Zaobao on Jan 27.

Translated by Kua Yu-Lin

This article was first published on Jan 31, 2017.
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