Singapore’s role in Belt and Road initiative shouldn’t be dismissed

By Ge Hongliang Source:Global Times Published: 2017/5/23 19:58:39

Although Lawrence Wong, the national development minister and second minister for finance led a delegation to attend the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation recently held in Beijing, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's absence raised question over the country's attitude toward the Belt and Road initiative (B&R), and speculation about whether China is intentionally snubbing Singapore. Undeniably, Lee's absence signifies that Sino-Singaporean relations have experienced twists and turns recently, but it is unlikely that the B&R initiative will bypass Singapore.

Lee's absence at the forum can be perceived as another setback and even a low ebb in bilateral relations.

It wasn't until the 1990s that China and Singapore established formal diplomatic relations. Owing to special historical and cultural ties, intense economic and trade cooperation, as well as concerted efforts by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and Singapore's then prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, friendly and intimate bilateral relations were maintained on the whole.

However, with the changing regional and international situation as well as the increasing influence of China on a global platform, Singapore's attitudes and policies over some China-related issues have turned out to be unacceptable, leading to subtle changes in the Sino-Singaporean relations.

The regional situation facing Lee Hsien Loong's government has gone through tremendous changes compared with the period of Lee Kuan Yew's administration. The elder Lee is renowned for his concept of "balanced diplomacy," aiming for striking a balance between China and the US. However, with China rapidly rising as a regional power and exerting increasing influence on the international arena, geopolitical changes such as intensified competition among great powers and the ensuing imbalance of the regional situation are brought about. Under such circumstances, it would no longer be easy for Singapore to pursue a balanced diplomacy between China and the US.

Furthermore, in order to balance China's growing influence in the region, Lee Hsien Loong's government has responded actively to the US' pivot to the Asia-Pacific strategy. It has allowed the US to use its military bases and sided with the US and Japan on the South China Sea arbitration unilaterally initiated by the Philippines last year. Obviously, this is unacceptable to China and consequently Singapore was not included in China's "circle of friends" on the South China Sea issue.

Despite all this, Singapore is among the earliest B&R initiative's supporters at the official level and its endorsement on the initiative remains unchanged. Lawrence Wong holds that the B&R initiative will be potentially the world's greatest platform for regional cooperation and integration and "will provide a tremendous boost to trade, connectivity and infrastructure development." He also said that "Singapore supports the Belt and Road, and we stand ready to work with China and other countries to help build the Belt and Road."

On the second day after the Belt and Road forum, Lee Hsien Loong said Singapore and China are important partners with a wide range of shared interests and hoped that Singapore could become more involved in B&R construction, when he received Zhao Leji, head of the CPC Central Committee's Organization Department, in Singapore.

Singapore plays an indispensable role in the implementation of the B&R initiative due to its financial and judiciary advantages. It's reported that China's investment in Singapore alone accounts for about one-third of its total investments in countries along the B&R. As one of the largest offshore renminbi centers, Singapore plays a key role in investing in the countries along the B&R. Moreover, as the financial center of Southeast Asia, Singapore can provide capital support for the B&R initiative.

In addition, Singapore has prominent advantages and experiences in infrastructure construction, urban planning and legal services, which are vital in implementing the initiative. With the signing of a memorandum of understanding during the forum, the potential of Singapore for implementation of the B&R initiative would be further released.

There are reasons behind Lee Hsien Loong's absence from the forum and the factors leading to his absence have not been eliminated. However, how to overcome challenges and not allow Singapore's relations with other major powers to harm China should be paid more attention by Singapore.

The author is a research fellow at the Charhar Institute and the College of ASEAN Studies at Guangxi University for Nationalities. Follow us on Twitter @GTopinion 


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