Tommy Koh rebuts view that Singapore has acted against China

Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh (at rostrum) speaks at the end of the 12th China-Singapore Forum.
Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh (at rostrum) speaks at the end of the 12th China-Singapore Forum.ST PHOTO: LIM YAN LIANG

Singapore does not take sides in the South China Sea issue, nor is it aligned with or against any of the major powers, Ambassador-at- large Tommy Koh has reiterated at a public forum in China.

Reaffirming the close and mutually beneficial relationship between Singapore and China, he addressed statements made by a high-level Chinese official at the public session of the 12th China-Singapore forum yesterday.

Senior Chinese diplomat Ruan Zongze, the first of four speakers at the forum, said Singapore has taken actions in recent years that adversely affected bilateral ties. These included trying to get other Asean countries to release a joint statement after an international tribunal's ruling against Beijing's claims in the South China Sea last year, and saying publicly that the tribunal's award is legally binding and countries should abide by it.

China and four Asean states have overlapping claims in the sea.

Dr Ruan added that Singapore has also allowed the United States to deploy military vessels and aircraft meant for "close-in reconnaissance in China's South China Sea" since last year, though it claimed not to be aligned with the US.

Noting that Singapore is one of China's few "all-weather friends", Professor Koh said Singapore acted very carefully after the tribunal's decision: It did not issue a statement supporting the ruling, or call on China to comply with it.

"What did we do? We did the minimum possible without sacrificing our own national interests: We took note of the award," he said.

Dr Ruan's accusation that Singapore tried to mobilise Asean states to issue a joint statement against China on the arbitration award was also untrue, he added.

"We asked each of the nine Asean countries what is their position, what can they subscribe to in the joint statement, that is all we did," he said.

"We were an honest facilitator, trying to find out whether there is a consensus among the 10 Asean countries, but always conscious that our national interest is to promote peace and cooperation between Asean and China."

Prof Koh said Singapore's foreign policy is to be close to all the major powers. But he assured his Chinese audience that "the bottom line is this: Singapore will never allow its relationship with any major power to harm China".

Sino-Singapore ties are in good order, he added, with multiple annual high-level meetings, including the apex Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation meeting co-chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean and Chinese Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli. Singapore is China's top foreign investor, and China is Singapore's largest trading partner, he noted.

When Singapore becomes Asean chairman next year, it will think of projects to bring China and Asean even closer, he said.

Lim Yan Liang

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 11, 2017, with the headline 'Tommy Koh rebuts view that S'pore has acted against China'. Print Edition | Subscribe