Lee Hsien Loong visit augurs increasing cooperation

Source:Global Times Published: 2017/9/19 23:18:40

Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong started his China trip Tuesday. Not announced until Friday, Lee's trip is surprising to many, and triggered speculation.

It's Lee's first official trip to China in three years. The Sino-Singaporean relationship was at its worst since 2016. Singapore openly stood on Washington's and Tokyo's side in the South China Sea arbitration and it was the only ASEAN country that urged all parties to "fully respect" the tribunal ruling. Meanwhile Singapore has strengthened military ties with the US, viewed by many as a strategic "tilting toward Washington."

Lee's unexpected China trip is widely characterized as Singapore's attempt to adjust its Beijing policy.  Maintaining a balance between China and the US is one of the major political legacies of the country's founding father Lee Kuan Yew. Although Singapore is more reliant on Washington in politics and security, it is growing closer to Beijing in economics and is trying to play down its identity as a US ally in dealing with Beijing. However, such strategic positioning has been at risk in recent years.

Singapore's deviation from traditional strategy sparked criticisms. Last year, Singapore's armored vehicles were seized by Hong Kong after participating in Taiwan's military drills. Lee was absent from Beijing's Belt and Road summit and Malaysia has started construction of the Melaka Gateway deepwater port as a part of the Belt and Road initiative. All these have touched a nerve.

Lee Hsien Loong and other high-level officials have been talking positively about China, but it's still too early to conclude that he has made up his mind to sizably adjust the country's diplomatic strategies. Singapore will still depend on the US for politics and security, and its identity as a US ally will not change for a long time. But as long as Singapore doesn't stir up trouble against China among ASEAN countries, playing out its role as an outpost for the US in Melaka in a moderate way, China needs to develop inclusive and cooperative relationship with Singapore.

Despite its small size and population, Singapore is influential in ASEAN. A sound China-Singapore relationship is not about Beijing yielding to Singapore but to the mutual benefit of both countries. Beijing has more leverages in dealing with Singapore, but restoring friendly cooperation with Singapore based on rules and regulations is more beneficial to China.

Singapore was once called a "little red dot" by former Indonesian president Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie. The term is also adopted by Singaporeans to express their sense of insecurity. It is believed that Singapore has no intention of challenging China and Lee Hsien Loong is just not as skilled as his father in controlling the risks and striking a balance between China and the US.

Rebalancing between Beijing and Washington seems to be a new diplomatic design for Singapore. The country has played a positive role in China's reform and opening up. Despite all the ups and downs, there is reason to be optimistic about the future Sino-Singaporean relationship.

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