Among the 29 Heads of State who converged on Beijing for the Belt and Road Summit earlier this week were leaders of seven of the ten ASEAN states. One leader was noticeably missing: Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Various observers have noted this absence, including Hugh White, who suggested it was no co-incidence that, like others - Japan, India, Australia and ‘most western countries’ - who had not sent their national leaders to Beijing, Singapore was aligned with the US and uneasy about China’s rise – ‘or perceived to be so’.
However, it has since emerged that Singapore was never given the choice. China had not invited Singapore’s prime minister in the first place.
This is surprising, especially as Singapore has been one of the biggest advocates of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). While many other states were initially hesitant in signing up to BRI, including some of its ASEAN neighbours, Singapore’s support has been unequivocal from the beginning. Many high-level co-operation talks between China and Singapore on the subject have taken place, with both sides warmly welcoming cooperation on BRI.
In light of this past co-operation, Beijing’s snub is significant. It is fair to conclude that, if China continues to freeze out Singapore, there could be significant implications on at least three levels.
What it might mean for Sino-Singapore relations
First, this marks a low point in Sino-Singapore relations. Since its independence 50 years ago, managing the US-China dichotomy has been a key tenet of Singapore’s foreign policy. Despite close defence partnerships with the US, China has referred to Singapore as an ‘important partner and a special friend of China’. This long-standing relationship has been fostered not only by historical and cultural linkages, but also the deep bond that existed between former leaders, Lee Kuan Yew and Deng Xiaoping. When LKY died in 2015 there were video tributes on Chinese state media, and he was described as ‘an old friend of the Chinese people’ by President Xi Jinping.
Of late, however, the bilateral relationship has been less than smooth, particularly since remarks made by the Singaporean prime minister at a White House state dinner in August last year. At that event, Lee Hsien Loong praised the US rebalance and endorsed the arbitral tribunal ruling on the South China Sea. In a separate incident, a Chinese tabloid accused Singapore of bringing up the tribunal ruling at the Non-Aligned Movement Summit, which led to a very public spat between the Global Times editor and Singapore’s Ambassador to China.
Singapore is not a claimant state but the fear that China might extend its reach in the South China Sea is nevertheless acute for the tiny island-state. Given its trade volumes are 3.5 times its GDP, any instability in the region would affect Singapore’s trade routes, and therefore its economy. When Singapore advocates for a rules-based order, it is not just values that it seeks to defend but its economic lifeblood.
Singapore’s stance on the South China Sea did not please China. In November, nine of Singapore's armoured troop carriers were impounded in Hong Kong on their way back from Taiwan. At the time, many saw Beijing’s heavy hand at work behind the scenes and believed the incident reflected China's displeasure with Singapore’s joint military exercises with Taiwan, even though these date back decades.
In their usual quiet diplomatic style, Singapore diplomats worked hard behind the scenes to eventually secure the vehicles’ return after two months. This was then quickly followed up by a high-level bilateral cooperation forum, postponed the previous year due to strained ties. Yet, China still raises the South China Sea matter at bilateral forums.
Implications for other middle powers
China’s snub is yet another example of the narrowing diplomatic space that small states like Singapore have in which to manoeuvre. Relying on its hard-nosed pragmatism has, for half a decade, served Singapore well. But with most of its ASEAN neighbours increasingly willing to set aside the South China Sea disputes in return for a massive influx of Chinese investment, it is increasingly difficult for Singapore to both protect its national interest and maintain an independent foreign policy of not picking sides.
This has implications for other countries like Australia, which occupy a very similar position in the world. Like Singapore, Australia has strong historical, security and defence ties to the United States, while China is now far and away its biggest trading partner. Perhaps one lesson from this incident is that it is becoming harder to compartmentalise politics and economics.
Implications for China’s role in the world
Finally, what does the incident say about the Belt and Road Initiative and more broadly, China’s role as architect of global initiatives? Although the BRI is as much about geo-economics as geopolitics, it is undeniable that just on the basis of scale, access to and participation in Chinese initiatives have a tendency to draw lines in the sand; clearly distinguishing between who is a friend of China, and who is not.
The snub demonstrates Beijing now has another diplomatic tool in its arsenal. Such ‘sanctions with Chinese characteristics’ are proving to be increasingly effective at asserting dominance and deterring actions counter to China’s interest. It is clear that China’s already considerable diplomatic and economic clout is increasing and its reach is becoming more pervasive. This too makes it more difficult for states that seek to steer a middle course.