Singapore risks being left out of the loop on B&R regional integration

By Thomas Hon Wing Polin Source:Global Times Published: 2017/5/22 19:18:39

Delegates from over 130 countries gathered in Beijing to discuss cooperation, trade and development at the first Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation recently. Right after the conference ended, it came to light that Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had not been present at the forum. Media speculated that Lee was not invited by China. For seasoned Asia-watchers, it was a watershed moment in regional affairs and marked the end of the era of amicable ties that Lee's father, Lee Kuan Yew, had so painstakingly nurtured with Asia's economic superpower .

What this means is that China no longer regards Singapore as a friend. Despite cordial links with the elder Lee's government, one thing had long irked Beijing: the offer by Singapore of its supremely strategic location to the US for military activities in the region. But other aspects of the relationship were healthy enough that the Chinese overlooked not just that, but even Singapore's military cooperation with Taiwan. Moreover, China understood that Singapore, with no natural resources, needed to keep sound ties with the US in order to survive and prosper. The Chinese readily accepted the island state's policy of political equidistance between China and the US.

Since 2011, however, the Americans have intensified their campaign to contain China, in the guise of its "pivot" to Asia. Simultaneously, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has junked his father's judicious balancing act and turned his country almost into a de facto military base for the US Navy. His words, and those of his ministers, have become increasingly, even enthusiastically, pro-US and China-skeptical, if not outright anti-China.

Indeed, on a visit to the US White House in 2013, Lee saw fit to joke about pig soup and pollution at China's expense. In Chinese, if not Asian culture and diplomatic protocol, this was a big faux pas - all the more so as it occurred in the capital of China's No. 1 strategic rival. Too often, Singapore, then at the height of its prosperity, seemed to be flaunting its new orientation, without regard for Chinese sensibilities.

After a significant period of patience, Beijing has apparently had enough. The first public sign was the detention in Hong Kong late last year of Singaporean military vehicles en route home from Taiwan. Such transits had long occurred without incident - but not this time. Though the vehicles were released months later, the episode signaled that something was serious amiss in the China-Singapore relationship.

Regarding the Belt and Road, it is clear that the Chinese are designing the megaproject to bypass Singapore. The designated Belt and Road ports in Southeast Asia are Malacca in Malaysia and Tanjong Priok near Jakarta, Indonesia's capital. Such marginalization of Singapore would mean a huge blow to its economic fortunes in the longer term.

The Philippines and Vietnam, long pro-Washington and Beijing-phobic respectively, recently mended fences with China and distanced themselves from the US. Their leaders, like those elsewhere in Southeast Asia, realize that the Chinese can offer them far greater benefits in the 21st century than the Americans. Besides, they know they must live with China forever, while America's presence in the region will ebb and flow (it is now ebbing).

Remarkably, Singapore's current leaders seem unaware of such basic realities. That leaves the Lion City as the sole, conspicuously pro-US country in Southeast Asia. It must feel very lonely.

The author is a former senior editor at the international newsweekly Asiaweek (English) and founding editor of Yazhou Zhoukan (Chinese). Follow us on Twitter @GTopinion


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