China's South China Sea stance must be able to withstand the Singapore test

Singapore has neither the ability nor intention to hurt China. If China is willing to listen to its Asian neighbours and make adjustments, it will be the stronger for it.


Relations between Singapore and China, and Singapore's South China Sea (SCS) policy in particular, have recently become a hot topic in Chinese media.

Following a war of words between Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin and Singapore's ambassador to China Stanley Loh, the Chinese media quoted remarks made by a Chinese military expert who stressed the need to "make Singapore pay the price". Singapore momentarily turned into an Asean country that was deliberately "making things difficult" for China on the SCS issue, and many commentators urged punishment for Singapore the "troublemaker". Even so, it is simply not necessary to hurt Sino-Singapore ties over Singapore's policy on the SCS.

The "clash" between Singapore's ambassador to China and a well-known Chinese media editor was originally a good thing. On Sept 27, Singapore's English newspaper The Straits Times translated and ran the Global Times' criticism of Singapore's actions at the 17th Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit; and then on Sept 28, the Global Times published the full rebuttal letter from Ambassador Stanley Loh together with the reply from editor-in-chief Hu Xijin. Opinions from both sides went back and forth and doubts were clarified in a public manner. Initially, it was a positive way for the Global Times to demonstrate the openness and honesty of the Chinese media. However, just because both countries differ on their understanding on the SCS and on Singapore's actions at the NAM summit, it does not necessarily mean that Singapore is "anti-China". Nonetheless, Chinese media has continued to launch "crusades" calling for China to "punish" Singapore. This misrepresents the state of Sino-Singapore relations and goes to show that some people are perhaps just too narrow-minded and biased in their world view.

What is Singapore's policy on the SCS? First, Singapore is indeed a critic of China's SCS policy. This is a fact. But in general, Singapore is considered to be a relatively reserved "critic" of China's policy. The Singapore Government takes a principled stand and stresses respect for international law when it comes to resolving the SCS disputes. It has made no mention of both the historical evolution of sovereignty in the SCS and of historical facts about China being the first to propose territorial claims over the SCS islands. As China's neighbour in Asia, Singapore claims neutrality in its stand on SCS sovereignty disputes, but in only recognising the law and not the historical issues in the SCS, Singapore is being unfair to China.

On many occasions on the global stage - whether bilateral or multilateral in nature - Singapore's declaration of its policy on the resolution of SCS disputes definitely leaned towards the United States and other Western countries. But Singapore's stance on the SCS still took Singapore-China relations into consideration, and it was certainly not a high-profile, no-holds-barred critic.


After the SCS arbitration ruling was announced on July 12, Singapore's Foreign Ministry issued a relatively reserved response and did not sing loud praises of the deeply flawed ruling. At the Asean Foreign Ministers' Meeting held in Vientiane on July 25, Singapore showed support for China by not mentioning the arbitration ruling in their joint statement after China and Asean reaffirmed their commitment to the Declaration on the Code of Conduct in the SCS.

Second, when it comes to China's actions in the SCS, Singapore is a great worrier. Due to professional research requirements, I often visit Singapore and am very familiar with the Singapore Government and the society's stand on the SCS. Singapore's concerns about China when it comes to the SCS primarily reflect the Western characteristics of Singapore's political, social and cultural education; Singapore is, without question, the most "Westernised" country in Asean. Its concerns also reflect the traditions of Singapore's foreign policy and strategy premised on finding a balance between East and West, more often than not by representing Western values and interests to review and interpret issues in the East. That is due to Singapore's history, strategy and geopolitical environment. This unique approach to diplomacy has remained unchanged from the time of Singapore's first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew through the term of its second, Mr Goh Chok Tong, until today with Mr Lee Hsien Loong at the helm.

Third, Singapore is a "cooperator" on China's SCS policy, for though its stance is on the side of the West, it clearly understands that both Eastern and Western perspectives must be taken into account and doing so is in line with Singapore's interests. China is Singapore's largest business partner and brings significant benefits to Singapore in terms of investment, tourism and business partnerships. More importantly, as a business-oriented country situated in the Strait of Malacca and a free economy, Singapore cannot avoid broad yet close economic, trade and social links with China, nor does it want to see crises or military clashes in the SCS. To ensure Singapore's prosperity, stability in the SCS must be maintained, and that means keeping up coordination among various parties and, in particular, cooperation with China.

Despite its frequent declarations of neutrality on the disputes over the SCS islands and maritime rights, Singapore has clearly chosen sides, as evidenced by its foreign and defence policies. Singapore is a military ally of the US and has allowed US littoral combat ships to be stationed at its Changi Naval Base. In addition, the US was granted approval to deploy its P-8 air reconnaissance aircraft from Singapore's Paya Lebar Air Base to conduct surveillance in the SCS.

After delivering a keynote speech at the Special Session of the Nikkei 22nd International Conference on The Future of Asia last Thursday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told reporters that Singapore must never be seen to be "playing multiple sides" on an issue. He also expressed concern over China's rise and the geopolitical situation in East Asia. These remarks show that Singapore has already "chosen sides" on regional politics and defence issues.

Furthermore, as a country with a Chinese-majority population in South-east Asia, Singapore has pushed for a united Asean to play up "Asean-centrism" in East Asian politics so as to maintain a prominent position in the Asean community. Singapore has also long chosen to consciously keep a distance from China in both its foreign and defence policies. In the short term, the Chinese media and public need not harbour any illusions about Singapore's SCS policy and the diplomacy and strategy behind it. It would be naive to think that China can force Singapore to change sides by going on the offensive. Punishing Singapore will yield the opposite effect.

The Chinese government and its people are firm in their belief on the need to safeguard China's sovereign and maritime interests in the SCS. However, we are indeed facing a "Singapore test" in maintaining our rights amidst the current complex and challenging circumstances in the SCS. The core of this test is not how much trouble Singapore stirs, but how much we can influence the thinking behind Singapore's policymaking in a way that inclines our small but important Asian neighbour to empathise more with us and understand China's SCS policy.

To achieve this, we should not lash out whenever others say things China does not want to hear. Nor should we retaliate or punish whoever is not saying or doing things according to China's wishes. To put it plainly, Singapore does not have the ability or intention to hurt China. On the contrary, if we are willing to listen carefully to different voices, opinions, concerns and criticisms among our Asian neighbours and then respond cordially and adjust our own policies and actions to work towards a common goal, only then will we be considered a strong China.

Professor Evelyn Goh, a Singaporean academic and also a professor of strategic policy studies at the Australian National University, stated in a recent interview with The Economist that if China maintains a munificent approach towards its periphery, not just pushing for "win-win"relationships or extending its economic embrace, Asian countries will truly welcome the return of the king. I completely agree with Prof Goh's opinion.

Diplomatic work is basically work that focuses on building human relations. The way to win people's hearts and minds as China rises is to cross the hurdle of the "Singapore test".

Singapore is still an Asian country that China should respect. If we have to retaliate and punish another country every time a war of words breaks out, then China will either be seen as acting high and mighty and prematurely asserting a hegemonic mentality in foreign diplomacy, or starting to suffer from the chronic illness of strategy fatigue.

The writer is the executive director of the China Centre for Collaborative Studies of the South China Sea and also dean of the School of International Relations at Nanjing University, China. The article first appeared in the Chinese online edition of The Financial Times on Oct 4, 2016. Translated by Kua Yu-Lin.

Please note that unlike Japan, Australia and the Philippines, Singapore is not a treaty ally of the US, as stated in the article above. Singapore is instead a major security cooperation partner of the US.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 07, 2016, with the headline China's South China Sea stance must be able to withstand the Singapore test. Subscribe