○ Some have speculated Sino-Singaporean relations are worsening as Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was absent from the Belt and Road forum in Beijing last month
○ The long-held trust between Beijing and Singapore has been compromised in recent years over South China Sea divergences
○ China used to take inspiration from the “Singapore model,” but that influence is waning. Fewer officials are being sent to Singapore to attend governance training classes
For years, China and Singapore shared a special bond.
Beijing has long been obsessed with what it calls the Singapore model, praising the city state’s success in maintaining single-party rule, a relatively uncorrupt government and a robust and inclusive economy.
The bond was initially nurtured by China’s Deng Xiaoping and Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew in the 1970s but even after Lee’s death in March 2015, the infatuation continued.
In late 2015, Singapore hosted the first meeting between the leaders of the Chinese mainland and Taiwan in decades. The historic event demonstrated Singapore’s unique influence across the Taiwan Straits that no other country can claim.
However, lately that special bond appears to be fading away.
Since 2016, Singapore has found itself caught up in the South China Sea disputes between China and its fellow ASEANnations, even though the Lion City itself is not a claimant.
Frictions grew in late 2016 after Hong Kong seized nine Singaporean armored vehicles in transit on their way home from Taiwan. Although the diplomatic row was smoothened after Hong Kong agreed to return the armored vehicles in January this year, the event triggered discussions in the media over what has gone wrong in ties.
Whispers of worsening relations grew louder with Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s notable absence from the Belt and Road forum in Beijing last month, China’s biggest diplomatic event of the year. A majority of ASEAN leaders, including Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, Singapore’s two neighbors, attended the forum.
“There used to be a greater depth of mutual understanding between China and Singapore but now that kind of understanding is gradually being lost,” Zhuang Guotu, head of the Center of Southeast Asian Studies at Xiamen University, told the Global Times.
“Don’t get it wrong. China’s relation with Singapore is still better than many other bilateral ties. The ethnic and cultural bonds as well as economic ties between the two countries remain strong. But as China’s influence grows, Beijing expects to be treated accordingly, and Singapore is struggling to adapt to that change,” Zhuang said.
Ruan Zongze, vice president of the China Institute of International Studies, said both countries have viewed their bilateral ties idealistically.
“Sino-Singaporean relations have always been special. Singapore played a unique role in China’s reform and opening-up. Chinese people have always had a great affinity for Singapore given that the country is the only overseas Chinese-majority society. At the same time Singapore knew it had a special influence on China and intended to use it to boost its status as a mediator,” Ruan told the Global Times.
But Sino-Singaporean relations began to plunge in 2016, after the arbitration court at The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines in a South China Sea dispute case.
Because of its special relationship with Singapore and their common cultural heritage, China naturally held great hopes for Singapore to convey its views within ASEAN but was irked to find out that Singapore openly voiced its support of the arbitration ruling and later tried to mobilize pressure against China by attempting to include the ruling in the final document of the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Venezuela in September.
Both these diplomatic moves were perceived by Beijing as demonstrating the country’s alignment with the US despite Singapore’s traditional stance of not taking sides between great powers. The long-held trust between Beijing and Singapore has thus been compromised.
Analysts suggest Lee Hsien Loong has misjudged how much importance China attaches to the South China Sea and believe that these incidents could prompt Beijing to adjust its ties with Singapore, seeking partners with other ASEAN states.
“China should normalize its ties with Singapore by eliminating all idealistic expectations. Both countries should return to geopolitical realities, which is that the two countries share common interests but also face considerable divergences,” Ruan said.
As ties plunge, questions have also been raised over whether China still needs to look at Singapore as a role model.
China’s fascination with Singapore’s political system started in 1978 during top leader Deng Xiaoping’s first official visit to the city state. Harvard scholar Ezra Vogel wrote in his book Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China that during the trip, Deng and Lee Kuan Yew forged a special relationship and although Deng had not yet decided what policies to pursue in China at the time, “Singapore helped strengthen his conviction of the need for fundamental reforms.”
On his southern tour in 1992, Deng famously said China should learn from the city state’s experience and eventually overtake it. The statement triggered great interest in Singapore’s governance model among Chinese academics and officials.
Throughout the years, China has been fascinated by Singapore’s success in achieving advanced economic industrialization without undergoing substantial political liberalization. Chinese observers have also viewed Singapore as an example that Asian culture, especially Confucianism, can provide an alternative to Western democracy.
Since the 1990s, some 50,000 Chinese officials have studied in Singapore, Singaporean President Tan Keng Yam said during a visit to China in 2015. Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University has created a program especially tailored to Chinese officials, which is commonly known as the “mayors’ class.”
However, analysts have told the Global Times that the number of Chinese officials studying in Singapore has been declining in recent years.
Zhu Lijia, a professor of public management at the Chinese Academy of Governance, said one reason is that China has greatly improved its own training capabilities and shifted much of the task of training its officials to domestic Party schools and socialist institutes.
“It not just Singapore, the number of officials studying in the US and the UK has also been declining. We have many scholars returning from overseas institutions who are perfectly capable of introducing foreign experience to officials at home,” Zhu told the Global Times.
But the core reason, he said, is China’s growing confidence in charting its own course of development.
“China has progressed and matured in summarizing its own experience. Singapore’s experience inspired China decades ago but it is no longer suitable for a country so vast, populated and infinitely more complicated in social and economic issues,” Zhu said.
His opinion was echoed by Zhuang, who said China has developed its own governance model and the role of the Singapore model has been greatly weakened.
Despite frictions putting a dark cloud over ties, lately there have been positive signs in the relationship.
On Tuesday, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang accepted an invitation from Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to make an official visit to the country, the Straits Times reported.
In an interview earlier this month, Singaporean Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said Singapore is a “strong supporter” of China’s Belt and Road initiative, defusing speculation that the country may be less than supportive of China’s plan.
Both developments came as the South China Sea disputes subsided this year with China and the ASEAN member states signing a code of conduct framework document in May.
Analysts said the premier’s visit to Singapore could herald an improvement in ties as both sides acknowledge the importance of putting aside differences and getting back to good ties.
They noted that Singapore may well find itself caught in escalating rivalries between China and the US and it will have to tread between the two powers with greater diplomatic dexterity.
Zhuang said Singapore often keeps its distance from China to avoid being seen as too pro-Chinese in front of the other ASEAN members.
“Singapore should understand the importance of not making trouble for China in what Beijing sees as core issues. China does not want Singapore’s unconditional support. The latter is hegemony and not in line with China’s long-term interests,” Zhuang said.
“As for China, a growing power should prepare itself for diverging opinions. The country should understand that it is not necessarily a good thing for all its neighbors to sing China’s praises,” Zhuang noted. — (Global Times)
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