China respects Singapore as a sovereign country with its own interests, despite differences in views and policies between the two from time to time, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.
"Of course they would prefer us to speak up more often, and in a more closely aligned way with what they prefer on every single issue, but they understand that we are different countries and it's not possible," he said at a dialogue with Washington Post newspaper columnist Fareed Zakaria.
They were discussing the changing balance of power in Asia, with the rise of China.
As for the type of world power China plans to be, Mr Lee said that for now, it remains to be seen.
He noted that one reason America has been successful as a world power is its willingness to give other countries space.
"You could disagree with them, you could argue with them, they do twist your arm sometimes, but they are benevolent hegemonists," said Mr Lee. "Now, whether other great powers take the same approach, or whether they will take a purely realpolitik view - big powers do what they will and small countries suffer what they must - that's to be seen."
The Chinese, he added, say that all countries - big and small - will work on the basis of equality, mutual respect and benefit. This was met with doubt from Mr Zakaria, who said: "That's the rhetoric, but Chinese policy is fairly realpolitik."
Mr Lee acknowledged his statement and said how China planned to operate remains to be seen.
If China does go down the path of realpolitik, he said, it will face pushback from many countries. "They want their place in the sun, and if they can get it under the status quo, I think they would prefer that because they know that conflict is not a straightforward matter," he said.
Mr Zakaria also asked Mr Lee what he thought was China's opinion of Singapore-US ties, wondering if it would see Singapore as an "American outpost in South-east Asia". Chinese representation at the funeral of Singapore's founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in March fell short, he noted. China's highest-ranking representative was Vice-President Li Yuanchao, while the US' top representative was former president Bill Clinton.
Mr Lee replied, to laughter: "Oh, I would not read too much into attendance at funerals." The Chinese, he said, are realists who understand the US is important to Singapore. He also brought up the South China Sea issue, noting that though some Asean countries are claimants in the dispute, "every Asean country wants good relations with China".