MFA calls Chinese media report a 'gross distortion' of PM's remarks

SINGAPORE has rebutted a Chinese media report that it says "grossly distorted and misreported" Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's recent remarks about China's territorial disputes and relations with its neighbours.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) also took issue with the "sensationalist headline" used in the Global Times report on Wednesday.

"Such unprofessional reporting is unhelpful and could harm bilateral relations and affect people- to-people ties," MFA said in a statement, which was reported on major Chinese news websites. In an unusual move, the official Xinhua agency carried parts of PM Lee's comments in English in its report rather than translating them.

The Global Times report, headlined "Singapore PM: China could gain Diaoyu islands but lose its international standing", was published on the Chinese-language website of Global Times, an offshoot of the Communist Party's mouthpiece, People's Daily.

It quoted PM Lee, who spoke at the Nikkei International Conference on the Future of Asia held in Tokyo in May, as saying that China has to weigh carefully between gaining in its bilateral disputes and losing its reputation and standing in the world.

China is locked in a dispute with Japan over a group of islets in the East China Sea and separately with four Asean countries and Taiwan over islands and maritime borders in the South China Sea.

The MFA said the Global Times had taken Mr Lee's comments "completely out of context".

It pointed out that Mr Lee had made the remarks on the territorial disputes in the context of a broader question from a member of the audience at the conference, who asked whether regional countries should band together to form a "close enclosure" against China.

MFA said Mr Lee rejected such an approach, which he said was neither constructive nor helpful. He further pointed out that every country in the region benefited from China's progress and hoped to cultivate good ties with Beijing.

"Let us all make friends and develop constructive relations with one another in a multi-dimensional way," Mr Lee said, according to a transcript provided by the MFA.

Elaborating, he noted that Chinese leaders themselves understood the need for China to develop in a peaceful way that is not threatening to its neighbours.

"You watch what they say to themselves," he told the conference, according to the transcript.

"They often remind themselves that it is necessary for China to be a benign power and not to repeat the mistakes of previous powers which have tried to succeed through force of arms."

Mr Lee added: "So I think at some level, they understand this.

"And certainly, if they are taking a long-term approach, they will make this calculation that whether it is the Senkakus, whether it is the South China Sea, what you gain on the Senkakus or the South China Sea, but you lose in terms of your broader reputation and standing in the world, you have to make that calculation very carefully.

"So I will be very careful about saying, 'let us make a friendship amongst all the countries which are frightened of China'. I do not think that is a constructive and helpful approach."

MFA said Mr Lee spoke on the record, openly, in front of international journalists, and that his comments were made as a good friend of China's and put across China's position fairly.

"Any dispassionate observer will conclude that PM Lee was balanced in his assessment. PM Lee was trying to be helpful, not stir up tensions," said the ministry.

The Global Times, known for its nationalistic stance, appears to have published the article only on its website. It is unclear why it has published the report, based on Mr Lee's remarks in May, ahead of his visit to China next week, as announced by China's Foreign Ministry last Wednesday.

kianbeng@sph.com.sg