Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to Singapore last week was significant in several respects. Apart from marking 25 years of the establishment of diplomatic relations, the visit formalised the start of talks to upgrade the China-Singapore Free Trade Agreement and the launch of a third government-led project in Chongqing, after those in Suzhou and Tianjin. Collaboration in multiple areas and at a deeper level is also envisaged.
These initiatives build on the trust established way back in the 1970s through trips by former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and Chinese patriarch Deng Xiaoping to each other's country. Mr Deng witnessed the economic potential of Singapore's governance model and Mr Lee understood the logic and possibilities of China's rise. The determination of past and present leaders to continue developing ties has borne fruit. China is now Singapore's largest trading partner, and Singapore is China's largest foreign investor. That such a high level of mutually beneficial relations has been achieved, between an island-state of 5.5 million and a country of 1.3 billion, attests to the acumen, goodwill and sheer effort of those involved in transnational projects.
The David-Goliath nature of the partnership is naturally a subject of attention as well. Mr Lee recognised well the interlocutory role that Singapore could play between China, emerging from decades wasted by a command economy, and the West, looking for strategic Asian partners to help maintain a sound global order. Mr Lee's foresight bequeathed a realist legacy to his successors. Like him, they looked beyond the Leninist nature of China's political system. Instead, Singapore has preferred to focus on the economic dynamism and aspirations of China's people and its state's attempts to chart the nation's future in a stable, viable way. It is the long term that matters in the bilateral relationship.
Some fundamentals will sustain the unique partnership. Singapore must retain its relevance and value to bigger states and not diminish the "Singapore brand" by overextending itself. For government-to-government projects, there must be a "good balance between commercial interests and strategic interests", as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted in a media interview.
Singapore's foreign policy underpinning bilateral projects applies equally to great powers and others. It rests pragmatically on maintaining good relations with all and keeping its economic lifelines open to the world. It does not wish to be forced to choose sides in big-power rivalry, but is compelled to take a stand when its interests are at stake. It is in Singapore's interests to support China's peaceful rise, forge an all-round bilateral partnership, and help shape an architecture in the Asia-Pacific that will secure regional peace for the long haul.