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The key to understanding Singapore-China ties lies at the banquet table

From being fellow guests at a banquet, China has progressed to being a host at the banquet. It can't always seat Singapore at the main table, but the Republic continues to have a place at the feast.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's absence from the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing has some media and netizens overly excited.

There were many discussions. Is Singapore not supporting China's "One Belt, One Road (Obor)" initiative? Can we be "pessimistic" about Singapore-China ties based just on one incident?

Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean expressed Singapore's position clearly during a 20-minute speech at the East Asian Institute's 20th anniversary celebrations last Wednesday.

He said: "This reflects the depth, breadth and strength of our long-standing bilateral ties... Our common interest in building a peaceful and growing region is much greater than any occasional differences of views. Singapore will continue to be a strong and principled supporter of China's peaceful development and constructive engagement in the region."

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Mr Teo also mentioned that over the past three months, he co-chaired two of the three main bilateral mechanisms with senior Chinese leaders - the 13th Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation (JCBC) in Beijing, which he co-chaired with Politburo Standing Committee member and Chinese Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli; and just two weeks ago, Singapore welcomed Politburo member and Central Organisation Department Minister Zhao Leji for the Sixth Singapore-China Forum on Leadership in Singapore.

What are the concepts of "Politburo Standing Committee member" and "Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Politburo member"?

The CCP Politburo Standing Committee is composed of seven members, while the CCP Politburo is composed of 25 members, and they are the top and most important members of Chinese politics. China has a population of 1.3 billion people, and with Mr Teo meeting two of the top seven Chinese leaders and top 25 officials in the space of three months, are Singapore-China ties really that bad? Mr Zhao also met PM Lee when he visited Singapore.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

There was another positive sign: In an exclusive report by Lianhe Zaobao last Thursday, it was written that the third round of talks on the upgrade of the Singapore-China Free Trade Agreement will be held in Beijing in the middle of next month.

The news was confirmed by the Chinese embassy in Singapore. It is understood that the "upgraded version" of the "real stuff" included removing more obstacles for Singapore enterprises investing in China and providing them with more protection.

By checking on China's Ministry of Commerce website, we can see that China has signed 14 free trade agreements (FTA) with 22 countries and regions, and Singapore is one of them. And there are three countries negotiating the "upgraded version" of the FTA with China, and Singapore is one of them.

Singapore and China formally established diplomatic relationship in 1990, but the ties between both countries can be traced back to 1976 when founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew visited China, and when Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping came to Singapore for a historic visit two years later in 1978.

Since the establishment of ties, both countries have been involved in several areas of cooperation like the Suzhou Industrial Park, cultural exchanges and financial cooperation, and both sides have also set up seven economic and trade councils.

The leaders of the older generation of both countries have died since then, and continuing the special friendship of the older generation with the new generation of leaders is easier said than done.

TIES SHIFT TO NEW NORM

At the same time, the world has also undergone enormous changes. Singapore could serve as a bridge between China and the West in those years, but the West can now enter the China market directly.

Singapore today may still be the "little red dot", but the China of today is no longer the sleeping lion of yesteryears. With its growing economy and military strength, the world is seeing an increasingly confident China which is showing great leadership potential in the international arena.

If we say that in the past, Singapore and China used to sit at the same table as guests during the banquet on the international political stage, then the China of today has risen to be the host. The Chinese love to eat, and a lot can be learnt from the seating arrangement at the "dining table".

The evolution of the development in Singapore-China ties can also be reflected in the changes in "where the country is seated". As the host of a 1,000-man banquet, China has the final say on the seating arrangement.

Singapore may not always be seated at the main table, but it still has a seat at the banquet.

By using the metaphor of the Chinese economy, Singapore-China ties have shifted gears from the era of high-speed development to the "new norm" of "steady progress". It is difficult to climb to a new high, but it is unlikely to be a "hard landing".

There are at least four examples of why the old friends are not falling out.

First, the high-level annual dialogue platform. Singapore and China held the JCBC meeting in Beijing in February after the incidents over the South China Sea arbitration case and armoured vehicles. Mr Teo and Mr Zhang co-chaired the meeting.

Second, the government-to- government cooperation projects. Following the Suzhou Industrial Park and Tianjin Eco-City, the China-Singapore (Chongqing) Demonstration Initiative on Strategic Connectivity was launched in 2015.

Both sides agreed to develop it into a key demonstration project for China's Obor initiative, its drive to develop the western regions, and the national strategy of the Yangtze River Economic Belt initiative.

Third, support for the Obor construction. Singapore is one of the first countries to support China's establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Obor initiative. In 2015, the AIIB meeting was held in Singapore to negotiate and finalise the articles of agreement.

National Development Minister and Second Finance Minister Lawrence Wong, who represented Singapore at the recent Obor forum, also said that Singapore is a financial centre, and 60 per cent of the earlier Obor projects implemented in Asean came from Singapore.

Singapore can also share its experience in infrastructure building and city planning, and work together with Chinese enterprises to explore markets in a third country.

Fourth, close economic and trade relations. Singapore has been China's largest foreign investor since 2013, while China is Singapore's largest trading partner, and both countries are highly supportive of free trade.

OVER-EXCITED MEDIA

In spite of this, PM Lee's absence at a major diplomatic function hosted by China still caused over-excitement in some media, as they stirred up the issue of Singapore-China ties and even came out with far-fetched "conspiracy theories".

Singapore and Indian navies conduct a maritime bilateral exercise in the South China Sea annually, but some of the Chinese and overseas media over-interpreted the exercise this year by claiming that it was targeted at the Obor initiative.

The Singapore and Indian navies have been holding the annual exercise since 1994, so why did it provoke criticisms this year? Just because it began on May 18, four days after the Obor forum, so both sides were accused of holding it during a "sensitive period"?

So the lesson from this episode is that countries in the world should inform the United Nations (UN) first before holding any activities, so that the UN can coordinate the scheduling to prevent everybody from clashing with a "sensitive period" and causing misunderstanding?

Some media over-interpreted the Singapore-India exercise, but they seemed to have forgotten that while the Obor forum was being held, 28 warships from 20 countries gathered in Singapore, including China's Huangshan frigate, and the Chinese delegation was led by Rear Admiral Zhou Xuming, deputy commander of the South China Sea Fleet of the PLA Navy.

The warships from various countries were in Singapore to attend the 11th International Maritime Defence Exhibition and Conference Asia and the inaugural International Maritime Review.

Some of the media also seemed to deliberately forget that the Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN)'s Formidable-class frigate RSS Intrepid made a port call in Qingdao for four days in April this year. RSN frigate RSS Steadfast arrived at the port in Shanghai in September last year, and the frigates of the navies from both countries held a joint exercise.

Among the 10 Asean countries, the leaders of Thailand and Brunei did not attend the Obor forum, but the spotlight of some media was solely on Singapore. What is the current situation of the China-Thailand high-speed rail project? What is the latest progress of the help from China in constructing a cross-bay bridge in Brunei? Not interested? These media are interested only in the "little red dot"?

No matter how some media stir the news and how some online views add fuel to the fire, the general trend of Singapore-China ties will not undergo big changes after it has reached the "new norm" of "steady progress", as the common interests are greater than the differences. It is inevitable for the small boat of Singapore-China friendship to encounter stormy waves from time to time, but the boat will not capsize easily.

•The writer is the deputy China news editor of Lianhe Zaobao.

•This commentary first appeared in the Chinese-language daily on Sunday.

•Translated by Lim Ruey Yan.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 30, 2017, with the headline 'The key to understanding S'pore-China ties lies at the banquet table'. Print Edition | Subscribe