BEIJING - The phrase "South China Sea" received a total of three mentions in Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's annual National Day Rally last year and in 2014.
But last Sunday, it appeared about 15 times in his speech - Singapore's version of the State of the Union address in the United States - reflecting the increased importance of the South China Sea issue to the Republic.
Similarly, Mr Stanley Loh, Singapore's Ambassador to China, spoke about the issue - as a potential challenge to regional stability and what's at stake for the Republic - at National Day celebratory events in Beijing this month. It was the first time the envoy had broached the topic at such events in his four years here.
The increased attention given to the South China Sea issue is telling, given that Singapore is not a claimant in the territorial spats between China, four ASEAN nations and Taiwan. So what gives?
It might be that Singapore sees a need to respond to remarks from Chinese officials that appear to be veiled criticisms of the city-state's stand over the disputes. Singapore is the current country-coordinator of ASEAN-China dialogue relations at the ASEAN grouping.
At the end of a senior officials' meeting between China and ASEAN on Aug 16, China's vice-foreign minister Liu Zhenmin urged Singapore to proactively play its role as coordinator in advancing ASEAN-China relations - on the condition of non-interference in the dispute.
On Aug 5, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman urged Singapore to respect China's position on the South China Sea issue and to maintain an objective and fair position "so as to advance Sino-Singapore relations and promote healthy and stable China-ASEAN ties".
The remarks were a response to PM Lee's comments on a ruling by a Hague-based arbitral tribunal. The ruling invalidated China's historic claims in over 80 per cent of the South China Sea based on a U-shaped, nine-dash line.
The July 12 ruling, which China denounces as null and void, also decided that none of the disputed features in the Spratlys is an island under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and, thus, not entitled to a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone of its own.
At a dialogue in Washington during his official visit to the US earlier this month, PM Lee said that the ruling made a "strong statement" about international law and that Singapore sees arbitration as an impartial, objective, peaceful way of resolving issues and an ideal way of settling problems.
But he also pointed out that major powers may not follow this path due to their own interests. The US had not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. And as Mr Lee pointed out, China's stance - of considering the tribunal ruling null and void - "is for a big power, not an unprecedented thing to happen".
Despite his other points, China has focused on and interpreted PM Lee's description of the ruling as a "strong statement" as Singapore's stand that it should accept the outcome. China's criticisms of Singapore's stance are seen as rare instances of disagreements spilling into the open, sparking questions over the state of bilateral ties.
In his National Day Rally speech, PM Lee explained why Singapore - though a non-claimant that takes no sides amid the territorial spat - is "doing our best to be an honest broker" as country-coordinator, because it has "a lot at stake".
What it cares about is whether the disputes can be resolved through peaceful means that do not affect regional stability, and in a way that upholds international law, which is core to Singapore's survival as it means a small state is treated equally under the law alongside large powers.
Singapore is also keen to see the disputes managed in a way that does not hurt freedom of navigation or ASEAN unity - both crucial given its reliance on global shipping lanes for trade and on the grouping for a louder collective voice.
FRIENDS WITH ALL
But a closer look at PM Lee's remarks show that his objective went beyond addressing criticisms of Singapore's stance.
He also stressed the country's commitment to its long-held foreign policy principle of not taking sides, being friends with all and acting based on its own interests despite external pressure, including on the South China Sea issue.
"Other countries will persuade us to side with them... and we have to choose our own place to stand, what is in our interest, calculate it, choose a spot, stand firm, cannot succumb to pressure," said PM Lee. "I tell you this so that you will understand why we do what we do and why we have to stand up for Singapore's position."
It is an important message to make, especially at this point in Singapore's development, in its relationship with not just China but other countries as well.
Without the anchor presence of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew since his death last year, some countries might be tempted to test Singapore's resolve in abiding by its foreign policy principle of not taking sides and acting independently.
If Singapore stands firm, it maintains the status quo. But if there are signs of wavering, other countries may adjust how they deal with Singapore, such as lobbying or pressuring for its support.
In some ways, China's veiled criticisms could be seen as a form of pressure to sway Singapore closer to its side. Critics tend to cite the Republic's closeness with the US or support of American military deployments to back their claims that the Republic is siding with Washington against Beijing.
Beneath the Chinese disgruntle- ment lies an assumption among many here that Singapore, being a Chinese-majority society, should pick China over the US, especially as the former's influence grows. Or that China's interests should supersede those of other states.
For instance, netizen "haibindeyujinxiang" criticised PM Lee's remarks on his Twitter-like Weibo account on Monday, writing: "I don't understand. Your ancestors are from Guangdong. You and your father are Chinese. Why are you so cruel towards China? It's China, not the US, that raised your ancestors."
There is also a sense of frustration that Singapore is "unfairly" getting the best of both worlds - American protection and Chinese business - by being a friend of the two powers.
Debate in China on a new Cold War between a US-led faction and a Beijing-Moscow axis has also increased pressure on Singapore to pick sides. Such criticisms may reflect an insufficient or inaccurate understanding of Singapore, its multiracial profile and its geopolitical realities.
THE SINGAPORE WAY
The truth is that Singapore cannot afford to choose sides. It is the lot of a small country lacking in resources and heft that it has to play the middleman for as long as it can.
For Singapore and other small states in the region, it is not a zero-sum game nor a simple direct choice between China and the US.
Singapore supports the presence of the US in the region, believing it is stabilising. It hosts a logistics base used by US navy ships, a fact critics say shows Singapore's partiality to the US. But Singapore has maintained that its facilities are open on a commercial basis to other navies that want to use them.
Mr Lee Kuan Yew had also said that, in future, Singapore may "host logistics hubs for both navies - not for one. Do not choose between them". He made this comment in the book One Man's View Of The World, when asked for views on the US- China power balance in the region.
Singapore looks at foreign policy and other countries' initiatives through the focused lens of its national interest, and the broader lens of regional peace and stability. In so doing, it has created a reputation for itself as a small but clear-eyed country acting vigilantly in its national interest, while working with global partners to promote the international rule of law, and with regional partners to ensure stability.
Its reputation as a country that acts objectively after careful deliberation has worked to China's advantage too, such as when Singapore supported Chinese-led initiatives like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
Singapore has, at times, overcome its initial reluctance to support China.
For example, it had said it would not embark on a third government-led project with China to avoid overstretching its resources, but went ahead last year when it launched the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative in the south-western municipality to boost China's western development and connectedness with the region.
One consideration that nudged Singapore forward was the impact this project could have on China's development and the region.
While some in China may want Singapore to be its exclusive friend and act in China's interest, Singapore can be a better friend of China if it also builds a web of strong friendships with other countries. It can be a friend of China, and mutual friends with other countries, as espoused recently by President Xi Jinping.
Despite some media reports on the issue, and netizens' venting, in fact the even tenor of Singapore- Sino relations continues.
Many in China, including its top leaders and scholars, have a positive view of Singapore and deep understanding of its way of doing things and its constraints. Fundamentals in bilateral ties are strong, thanks to institutional co-operation mechanisms and regular exchanges between top leaders. Singapore has been China's top investor since 2013 and bilateral ties have deepened with a new partnership framework last year.
Also, the spotlight may subside after Singapore vacates the "warm seat" as country-coordinator in ASEAN-China dialogue relations in 2018. Things may also calm down after Beijing and ASEAN work together to improve the South China Sea situation, once work progresses on drafting a binding Code of Conduct.
Meanwhile, the Government has to explain to concerned Singapo- reans, including those with commercial interests with China, why it needs to uphold interna- tional law, and to assure them that ties are on an even keel.
PM Lee explained to Singaporeans: "The Government has to take a national point of view, decide what's in Singapore's overall interest. We want good relations with other countries if it's at all possible but we must also be prepared for ups and downs from time to time."
It is an opportune time to reaffirm the need for Singapore's foreign policy stance, as this won't be the last time that it is tested.
This article was first published on August 25, 2016.
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