COVID-19 SPECIAL

Singapore-Beijing ties keep a steady course at 30-year milestone

They may have been in countries thousands of kilometres apart, but that did not stop 30 musicians from Singapore and China earlier this month launching into a sprightly performance together to mark 30 years of bilateral relations.

Clasping their erhu, they harmonised on Facebook as a virtual ensemble, showing the "deep friendship between the peoples of both countries", Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said when he shared a video clip of the song in a post.

If not for the Covid-19 pandemic, the musicians could have been performing in a grand theatre, for the year 2020 marks a significant milestone in the relationship between Singapore and China - it was 30 years ago that both sides established diplomatic relations.

The coronavirus has derailed plans to commemorate the occasion, disrupting high-level exchanges and projects, yet Singapore's ties with China have emerged unscathed from the tensions of these last few months.

Analysts say this is because of deft diplomacy by the Republic's officials and diplomats, and also because bilateral ties have been steadily improving.

A YEAR OF ANNIVERSARIES

This is a year of particular significance to China in its relations with South-east Asian nations. The Asian superpower is marking 70 years of relations with Myanmar, Vietnam and Indonesia. Notably, Chinese President Xi Jinping's first foreign visit this year was to Myanmar in January.

"In this context, China-Singapore relations is a piece of this picture," says Mr Lye Liang Fook, senior fellow at ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute.

Both countries were proactive in laying the groundwork for this year's celebrations with high-level visits, he notes.

Senior Cabinet members - PM Lee and then Deputy Prime Ministers Teo Chee Hean and Tharman Shanmugaratnam - and key members of the 4G leadership, including DPM Heng Swee Keat and Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, were among Singapore leaders who visited China last year.

President Halimah Yacob and Mr Heng were both expected to visit China in the first half of this year, although this is now unlikely.

 

Instead, engagements have taken the form of "phone call diplomacy". Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan has spoken with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi at least three times since January, according to his Facebook posts and statements by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA).

Mr Lye says this shows "both sides value the relationship to have their foreign ministers touch base with each other three times in such a short span of time".

Last Tuesday, Mr Chan and Manpower Minister Josephine Teo had a videoconference with Chongqing Party Secretary Chen Min'er and Mayor Tang Liangzhi, where they witnessed the signing of eight deals.

These are clear signs that there is constant communication at various levels, from working-level officials to senior leaders, says Mr Lye.

This communication has had concrete results. The Government was able to bring back from Wuhan 266 Singaporeans and their family members on two flights earlier this year.

MOMENTUM OF BILATERAL TIES SUSTAINED AMID PANDEMIC

This increased engagement is one silver lining amid the pandemic, says Mr Lye. "These are things which form good building blocks for the bilateral relationship going forward," he adds.

An MFA spokesman says both countries have a "close, multifaceted and longstanding relationship at the political, economic and people-to-people levels", and collaboration during this period is testament to this strong relationship.

 
 
 
 

And while measures to contain Covid-19 have slowed economic activity on joint government projects and those from the private sector, "both sides have done our best to sustain the momentum of bilateral contacts on these cooperation projects with the aid of technology", the spokesman says.

At the moment, they are exploring ways to resume travel. Mr Chan said in an interview last week that, for starters, such a channel could be open to senior management and essential personnel of Singapore businesses in China.

Associate Professor Gu Qingyang of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy says finding a way to do this once infection numbers stabilise in Singapore would be a way to demonstrate the "depth of bilateral relations".

Deft diplomacy has also been crucial to keeping ties ship-shape. Dr Balakrishnan highlighted this in Parliament in March, noting that when Singapore wanted to close borders to travellers from China in February, it was aware this could have an impact on bilateral ties.

So Singapore "gave China a 'heads-up' before making the public announcement and we made a special effort to explain why we had to do this", he said. At that time, Singapore was only the third country, after North Korea and Russia, to close borders with China because of the epidemic.

PM Lee and other Cabinet members have also expressed support for China's efforts to combat Covid-19. For its part, China has "positively acknowledged" Singapore's efforts to fight the coronavirus, says Prof Gu, adding: "There is a sense this is a common challenge both are facing, so they are united in efforts to deal with this."

And while countries such as the United States and Australia tussle with China over the origin of the coronavirus, Singapore has remained above the fray, he notes.

But as US-China ties continue to sour, some analysts raise concerns that countries could be forced to pick sides. Singapore has said time and again it wants to avoid choosing between the US and China but, with tensions between the superpowers looming large, this is something observers will watch closely.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 17, 2020, with the headline 'Singapore-Beijing ties keep a steady course at 30-year milestone'. Subscribe