Shining the spotlight on Starlight

When I was working for this newspaper in 2012, I spoke to Yang Yi, a retired Chinese rear admiral, about Singapore's military cooperation with the United States and its hosting of US navy ships at Changi Naval Base.

He said that Beijing was "very open" to the idea of Singapore's military cooperation with the US. "Such… arrangements are not born out of a Cold War mentality of focusing on a third party," said the then director of the Institute for Strategic Study at the People's Liberation Army National Defence University.

The admiral added that he "highly appreciated" Singapore's contribution and role, given that its influence was "much bigger than some other countries".

The same approach applied to Singapore's military training in Taiwan, which China considers a rump province. For years, Beijing adopted a studied silence to Project Starlight - which started in 1975 when Taiwan sought to develop ties with other countries after it lost its United Nations seat to China - so long as Singapore stressed its "one China" position.

What a difference four years has made.

Sino-Singapore relations hit a high point in November last year when the two countries announced an "All-Round Cooperative Partnership Progressing with the Times". Commemorating 25 years of diplomatic relations, both sides pledged 19 initiatives to deepen cooperation in areas such as finance, transport and communications, leadership and training.

Thereafter, the relationship has gone downhill, culminating in the recent seizure of nine Singapore Armed Forces Terrex infantry carrier vehicles in Hong Kong, followed by Beijing expressing its opposition to countries with any form of official exchanges with Taiwan.


Philippine marines aboard a station in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has declared the Philippines' "separation" from the US and said Beijing and Manila could "appropriately handle disputes". PHOTO: REUTERS

The Terrex incident should be studied in broad context. For many years, Beijing watched Singapore's principled position on the South China Sea disputes carefully. While Singapore stated that it had no direct claim in the disputes, the Republic advocated that Asean play a role in resolving the disputes - a position different from that of Beijing, which prefers to resolve the disputes bilaterally.

In December last year, Singapore announced an enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement with the United States, which saw the deployment of US Navy P-8A Poseidon aircraft to Singapore. These aircraft could be sent on maritime surveillance patrols out to the South China Sea.

An astute strategy of seeking to keep all major powers engaged in the regional balance of power cannot be mistaken for Cold War-era containment.
That said, Singapore and other countries such as Australia and Japan that express principled positions on the regional order and the South China Sea disputes would likely continue to find themselves inviting China's ire.

In June this year, Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan was visibly absent from a press conference in Kunming that was supposed to be held jointly by Asean and China, following a special meeting ahead of the 25th anniversary of dialogue partnership between the two parties. The Straits Times reported that Asean countries were fearful that China would turn the event into a public relations exercise for its own purposes vis-a-vis the South China Sea disputes.

In September, Singapore found itself in Beijing's cross-hairs again after the Global Times accused Singapore of attempting to table a South China Sea-related item at the 17th Non-Aligned Movement summit in Venezuela - an account disputed by Singapore.

On Oct 1, People's Liberation Army Major-General Jin Yinan reportedly told Chinese state radio that China should take retaliatory actions against Singapore for internationalising the South China Sea disputes. He accused Singapore of stirring up Sino-US tensions, and questioned the Republic's motives in hosting the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual security summit.

The recent incidents raise the question of whether China is reconsidering its tacit acceptance of Singapore's military exercises in Taiwan. From a wider perspective, China is putting the spotlight on Singapore's oft-repeated position that Asia-Pacific countries need not "take sides" in the ensuing contest for influence between China and the US.

The Global Times, which is known for its hyper-nationalist stance, expressed it well. In an editorial published on Saturday, the paper wrote that while Singapore claimed not to take sides in the South China Sea disputes, its remarks about the issue are "far from neutral". Expressing a point of view similar to Maj-Gen Jin's, the paper said that Singapore's "measures to contain China are becoming obvious".

It is hard to conceive how Singapore can be interpreted as wanting to "contain" China, given the long-standing depth and breadth of ties between the two countries.

Today, Singapore is the largest foreign investor in China, and an enthusiastic supporter of both the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade partnership. (It also supports the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which includes the United States but not China).

An astute strategy of seeking to keep all major powers engaged in the regional balance of power cannot be mistaken for Cold War-era containment.

That said, Singapore and other countries such as Australia and Japan that express principled positions on the regional order and the South China Sea disputes would likely continue to find themselves inviting China's ire.

Such a position was clearly articulated by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who spoke about the importance of the rule of law in resolving territorial disputes, and US Secretary of Defence Ashton Carter, who advocated a principled security network in preserving shared values and burden-sharing among regional states.

While the disputes in the South China Sea do not by themselves define the regional order, one gets a pretty good idea of the future direction of the regional order by studying how China manages the disputes.

China has been cultivating Asean countries such as Cambodia, Malaysia and the Philippines. In exchange for Chinese trade, aid and investment, these countries can and have been persuaded to take less strident positions on the South China Sea disputes.

In a recent visit to Beijing, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was granted a red carpet welcome. A Chinese firm was granted a US$13 billion contract to build a 620km rail link to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia agreed to buy four Chinese naval vessels and both countries agreed to settle the South China dispute bilaterally.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has declared the Philippines' "separation" from the US and said that Beijing and Manila could "appropriately handle disputes". This was a rollback from the previous administration, which brought Manila's South China Sea dispute with China for international arbitration, angering the latter.

For decades, China welcomed Singapore's one-China policy and in turn tacitly accepted the Republic's military training in Taiwan. The recent Singapore-China spats raise the question of whether China is reconsidering its tacit acceptance. These have come after Singapore made known its position on the peaceful resolution of the South China Sea disputes in accordance with the principles of international law. China has maintained that the international tribunal had no jurisdiction to hear the case brought by Manila.

The message from China is clear: everything can be negotiated (including training in Taiwan) provided one sets aside principled positions on the South China Sea disputes. It is thus no wonder that Singapore's approach on the South China has put it in China's sights.

Addressing the Terrex issue at the ST Global Outlook Forum yesterday, Mr Balakrishnan said that Singapore would not allow any issue to hijack its long-standing relationship with China.

He added that Singapore's circumstances and history inform its position on the importance of navigation and overflight, and of international mechanisms to resolve disputes.

The question here, however, is whether Beijing would be placated.

One thing is for certain: the Terrex episode has underscored the fact that Singapore's approach to the regional order and the South China Sea disputes will come under increased scrutiny from China.


  • The writer, a former Straits Times journalist, is Shangri-La Dialogue senior fellow at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 30, 2016, with the headline 'Shining the spotlight on Starlight'. Print Edition | Subscribe