25 years of Singapore-China diplomatic relations

Time for rethink of Singapore's position

It may only be a happy coincidence but Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit today after Washington and London confirms that Singapore is not only the Red Dot of South-east Asia but also a city in a powerful global system.

At the same time, Singapore is a member of Asean, and a rising China is interested in restoring its historic position in the region. This may be a good moment to ask, how does all this fit together?

Mr Xi's London-Washington visits remind us that the British imperial order of the 19th century placed Singapore in a key position in its war and trade framework, enabling the British to be strategically poised for action in Asia for more than 100 years.

When World War II ended, that order was inherited and extended by the United States. Lodged in the United Nations but divided by Cold War rivalries, the new world order was seen by many in the US as an American responsibility when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

During all that time, Singapore was an important link in the global chain that the Anglo-American order had constructed in Asia and one that was vital to the South-east Asian sub-order. Singapore's leaders after independence understood that and the city-state paid close attention to its place in that structure.

China has lately come to feel that it has been widely portrayed as an outsider who is elbowing into areas where it has no right to be. It may wonder if this global city-state is in a position to help dispel that image and make contributions towards the emergence of a regional order that is appropriate for a rising Asia.

Following the rise of the People's Republic of China and the emergence of Asean as a regional community, Singapore has responded to both with sensitivity. When more protagonists came forth and became assertive, Singapore continually reassessed its position in the Anglo-American order it has grown under. With

Mr Xi's visit coming so soon after visits to Washington and London, this is time for a rethink.

Behind the ideal of international order, Singapore developed to become the global city that would serve the region as a commercial hub. It has also acted as a financial centre for multinational companies, and even as an Asian haven.

Comparisons with Switzerland are no longer wishful thinking. Given the economic shift eastwards to Asia and the US' military rebalancing, the recent talk of China and the United Kingdom building a global partnership may have a new relevance. London's financial institutions and those in Singapore will provide further global range to the city-state's position, something that the Asean economic community is likely to value. The region would be interested to know if Mr Xi's visit will give further lift to Singapore's financial networks.

Asean and several of its member states are going through a testing time. Where China's plans and intentions are concerned, Singapore can continue to play the communication and explanatory role that it has done well in the past. The role demands considerable political skills.

At present, deep fissures over territorial claims in the South China Sea have caused relations with China to be unusually confrontational. Mr Xi has visited many countries in South-east Asia in the past two years, so the other states may not have high expectations of this visit to Singapore. Nevertheless, it will be in Singapore's interest to do what it can to push for some reassuring arrangements, for example, the Code of Conduct that many have been waiting for.

When Mr Xi comes to Singapore after Washington and London, there will be many who wonder what this set of meetings - two along the Atlantic seaboards and the third in the heart of the Indo-Pacific Ocean - might mean for our region. Given the shift of global economic development towards Asia, the initiative of late seems to lie with China. It would be natural for South-east Asian nations to ask what China's plans are for its nearest neighbourhood.

China's history has a very different trajectory from those of the UK and the US.

The nature of the Chinese state had been shaped by traumatic attacks for millennia, almost all coming from overland. Strong centralised institutions were created to fight off its powerful enemies and teach the conquerors to respect its distinct civilisation. Over the centuries, the people who became Chinese were willing to learn what they wanted from those they came into contact with. This capacity to do so has always strengthened their faith in the resilience of their inherited values.

China is conscious that, whenever it was unified, it was the region's superpower. Its precipitous decline and fall after 1800 had shamed its people. Three generations of leaders then struggled to recover from threats to undermine the civilisation's core values, in recent times coming mostly by sea.

They went through two costly revolutions to rebuild structures that would enable the country to safeguard its future development and security. They have taken hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, mastered the tools of modernisation, and made the world look to China's economy for future development. All this they have done in less than 40 years. Thus the country has moved past the century of victimhood, and can now claim the right to have its say in world affairs.

Furthermore, their history had taught them that change is always to be expected and that the rules of political behaviour are man-made. Their recent experiences confirm that this is still true. For example, the British maritime order of empires in the 19th century was replaced by a world order dominated by the US. Since 1945, this has been anchored by a system of modern nation-states working through the UN.

But nothing has stopped decisions being made by a variety of protagonists that have changed the status quo. Events since 1945 confirm that nothing can be taken as God-given and sacred.

This reality makes for an uncomfortable world in which there can always be surprises. It is, therefore, every country's duty to be alert and prepare for the worst.

Recent developments suggest that China is looking to produce a regional order that flows with deep historical currents, something that those concerned would agree is normal and natural. In that context, Mr Xi's visit leads to the question, how does he view Asean and the role of Singapore?

As a region, South-east Asia has grown important as part of an Anglo-American global order that successfully survived the war of ideologies. Asean today seeks to construct its own community of interests that connects the neighbouring regions of East Asia, South Asia and Oceania. This is new and China does accept that this goal is beneficial to regional order. What is not clear is the residual links that such an order will have with the global chain that was once anchored in London and Washington.

Here, the three visits to Washington, London and Singapore in a row may lead to some clarification.

Singapore is a key link in the global chain and could also be a pillar of future regional order. If these two roles remain important for Singapore's safety and prosperity, China would want to know how it intends to play them.

China has lately come to feel that it has been widely portrayed as an outsider who is elbowing into areas where it has no right to be.

It may wonder if this global city-state is in a position to help dispel that image and make contributions towards the emergence of a regional order that is appropriate for a rising Asia.

• Wang Gungwu is University Professor, National University of Singapore, and chairman of the East Asian Institute and the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 06, 2015, with the headline 'Time for rethink of Singapore's position'. Print Edition | Subscribe