China, Singapore and Asean ties

Beijing wants a united Asean 'but for it, not against it'

At The Straits Times Global Outlook Forum on Tuesday, historian Wang Gungwu was asked for his reading of ties between Singapore and China and Asean.

This is an edited excerpt from his response.

Q (ST foreign editor Audrey Quek) I'd like to quote from your article which appeared in The Straits Times on Oct 22 ("China and Singapore: Looking back to understand the future"), where you said that it would not be in Singapore's interest for China to doubt its friendship: "To counter that possibility, the Government cannot do it alone but must involve its citizens, especially those of Chinese descent, to prevent misunderstandings from growing into distrust."

Could you elaborate on that ?

A I think basically the minister (Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, who spoke on this earlier during the forum) is right in saying that the long run is very important, that the Chinese do know that Singapore has a very special relationship with China and that Singapore's contributions to China are also well known.

So what may be read as being uncertainties that are happening today may well be what the minister suggested, they are just blips. They are little things which have to be dealt with but may not actually have long-term consequences.

But, of course, they're also indications of where the Chinese are changing their world view, their position vis-a-vis, say, the established diplomatic relations with Singapore at that time, (when) China was in no position except to expect Singapore to be helpful, and (be) very grateful for Singapore's efforts to help and invest and so on - so the relations were very simple in a way and Singapore took the opportunity to establish itself very firmly in the Chinese economy at that time.

You may recall this is one of the crucial things that people do sometimes forget. After the Tiananmen incident, the United States led the whole Western alliance against China, they just stopped investing in China, just pulled out of almost everything and only those in South-east Asia, particularly Singapore, continued to invest and affirm their faith in the Chinese leadership and I don't think the Chinese will forget that. It's not only Singapore but the whole of Asia - in fact even Japan did not follow the Western partners and withdraw from China, they in fact made special efforts to make friends with China, to see that China was in a difficult position and, therefore, they needed help.

These are examples of where the present position needs to be rethought, not because of what Singapore is doing right or wrong, but rethought because of an assessment of what China is facing today.

I mean the China that needed our external help is no longer quite that way at all.


China now is actually in the position of being looked to for help and China is not yet in a position to give that kind of help but they'd rather like to be in the position, and Singapore has to reassess its position in that context not because of anything specific that Singapore has done or what the Chinese have done.

The little indications here and there - they are day-to-day problems which matter for diplomats and governments and so on, not for historians like me who need a longer time span to understand anything.

I actually share the minister's view that that has to be managed, but managed not with any alarm that something fundamental has gone wrong, but managed (so as not to allow) these little, little things to add up, irritations to add up to a point when it becomes very, very significant.

I think that is probably unlikely because I think the diplomats on both sides are pretty skilful, very experienced and they know what the score is.

In the long run, I agree that China understands the importance of Asean much more than probably some of the countries in Asean themselves. I mean I'm not sure I'd use the word centrality and that's central to China - China is central, so Asean is not central - but it's very important to China because I think if you look around China's borders and so on, Asean actually is the most peaceful area for China, the least threatening, the most likely to be, in fact, helpful to China, particularly since China is now committed to the global economy and, therefore, needs freedom of navigation, freedom for ships to wander around, because the maritime economy is basically what China has benefited from for the last 40 years and they know that.

This is totally different from the past, and I think they appreciate that for that maritime economy to be pursued consistently and successfully from now onwards, (you must) have peace in Asean and Asean can be the most helpful to ensure that China's development continues. All the other places, quite frankly, if you look around China, all the other places are far more dangerous and far more unpredictable.

Q Just one related question on how China relates to Singapore and vice versa. Recently The Economist had a story about how China sees overseas Chinese, the diaspora, as one entity and that creates problems like with Hong Kong and Taiwan. Do you see that being a problem too for Singapore that they see us as majority ethnic Chinese and, therefore, should be in a better position to comprehend its actions and be more sympathetic?

A I think it is quite right that the Chinese do expect people of Chinese descent in Singapore to understand China better than its neighbours. I think that's true, the Chinese will expect that.

But I think the Chinese do not mix Singapore up with Hong Kong and Taiwan. That's a very different story. Hong Kong and Taiwan, to the Chinese, is part of China and, therefore, they are subject to different sets of standards, different expectations of them and, therefore, the most sensitive area in all China's foreign relations frankly is Taiwan - it's not South-east Asia, it's not even North-east Asia - the issue of Taiwan and Taiwan is the key issue that is the most troubling and difficult and sensitive between the US and China and nothing compares with that in my mind.

So in that context, Singapore is not in that area of discussion or debate at all.

Singapore is important because Singapore actually offers to stand up to say they are trying to guide Asean towards unity, towards its future position of centrality of the region and the regional importance of South-east Asia if they stay united.

I think Singapore is quite right, it's in Singapore's interest to do it and Singapore is doing it probably through being hard-working, working too hard at this very difficult problem - but I think, quite rightly, they are paying attention to it.

And I think the Chinese do recognise that Singapore is in a position to make Asean work if Asean is going to work at all. Frankly, this is far from certain and I think everybody knows that it is a particularly difficult issue.

And I think China hopes that Asean can really be one. But they don't want Asean to be one which is leaning against them, they want them to be leaning for them - but that, of course, may not (be); it's not up to them to decide that and Asean's future does not (lie) in leaning to any side, but (in being) independent and separate, autonomous and capable of speaking with one voice - and that's the hardest of all.

Singapore is seen by many as one of the few countries that has that vision clearly in mind. Most of the other countries have so many problems of their own, they're not paying attention to Asean at all , whereas Singapore, I think, is the only country in Asean that is paying attention to Asean all the time because it is so central to Singapore's needs.

So maybe that imbalance of Singapore's great attention to Asean and the rest being a bit vague about it all makes Singapore very attractive to China - to pay a lot of attention to Singapore to see how Singapore can operate in this Asean future, and prepare an Asean which is fundamentally peaceful, stable and useful to China.

And if Singapore can be seen to be able to play that role, I think Singapore's position in the eyes of China would be extremely good.

Q (From the audience) China's One Road, One Belt initiative is a project of immense scale and attendant risks. But at the same time it's also President Xi Jinping's legacy. What do you think is the likelihood of this initiative succeeding in the mid- to long-term? And, if it does succeed, how would it reposition China both economically as well as politically?

A It is something that is very much on the minds of the Chinese leaders as well as all the people in the neighbourhood. It is a brilliant idea but it's very difficult to implement.

I'm not sure that the Chinese themselves know yet how to go about it.

What they've projected is the image of a China that's actively engaged with all its neighbours and prepared to intensify their investments to build up something which everybody actually appreciates, which is infrastructure. The whole thing is linked together... as a grand strategy coming together... they are not two separate things.

The AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) and the One Belt, One Road are connected. And they're not prepared to do it alone.

As you can see, they are trying to involve everybody interested - partly because they know they cannot do it alone, and second they're not sure how to go about doing it.

In fact, much of the One Belt, One Road policy depends on partnerships, on those countries actually cooperating with it, otherwise how could it possibly link up all those, whether on the road or the belt.

I think the Chinese don't expect it to be something that can be achieved very quickly. It is for the long term, there are many, many uncertainties. But they know what they have to start. At the moment you can see they're starting by talking to everybody about the sea part, which is much more difficult because it's an open sea, freedom of navigation, question of the ports and who decides which ports to open up and so on.

But what they can do which is more interesting in many ways, is that they've done some things on land which surprisingly have actually made some progress.

In Pakistan... all the rail roads linking up with fast rails and they want to make them faster... express railroads into Europe through whole of Central Asia, to Russia and into the Mediterranean as well. They want to improve their links with Europe.

But it's not, of course, entirely by land. They're also looking at the sea and the minister mentioned something which is really quite a big thing. There's a question mark over all of us and that is the unfreezing of the Arctic so that there's a north-west passage as it were... So there will be both maritime as well as overland links. But you can see it's such a big project. They don't have expectations that this will be resolved soon.

What they have is a long-term view - and this is where it comes back to long-term, not because as a historian I always favour that but I know that's how the Chinese plan ahead - so that they know roughly where they're going. And I believe that One Belt, One Road is in that sort of category. It's not something that they expect to achieve quickly.

I think what ultimately the Chinese would like to see is to be relevant. And they want to make their whole neighbourhood safe for themselves. At the moment they are reasonably safe but there are problems in every direction. What they see, for example, in my view, they see themselves not challenging the US at sea. That's to them quite clear. They don't see themselves putting all their money into some kind of naval challenge to the US.

What they see is to build on their own advantage. Their advantage is actually on the continent and the continent of Asia, Eurasia, including the seas of the western Pacific, South China Sea, East China Sea and the Indian Ocean. These are the areas where at least they have some confidence of being, as it were, able to at least determine the future of those areas.

But on land they're even more confident because that is one area they know is very difficult to deal with - all those neighbouring countries on land. But if they can succeed in dispelling the suspicions and centuries of difficulties between them and Russia and all the Turkey Muslim states in between and link up with Europe overland as well as by sea both ways - they actually can create a world in which the Eurasian continent, meaning Europe, all of Europe and all of Asia, together ultimately with Africa, will have a world of its own in which China's place will be secured.

To challenge the US at sea across the Pacific or to get involved in the Atlantic isn't in China's interest at all and I don't think they are worried about that.

The Chinese at least have a chance to have good partners in Europe as well as Russia, India and the Middle East, if they get the guarantees of some degree of peace there, that will ensure that they will actually dominate the economies of that area and have a peaceful relationship all round, in which the US will not be able to stop them. I think this is what they're hoping for.

At the moment they're blocked by the US in there as they see it at sea. No way they can change that radically.

But if they can assure themselves of the political and economic special relationships as it were with all those continental powers which are also linked by sea through the Indian Ocean, I think that will give the Chinese a tremendous sense of security and confidence.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 01, 2016, with the headline 'Beijing wants a united Asean 'but for it, not against it''. Print Edition | Subscribe