25 years of Singapore-China diplomatic relations

Low-key start to flourishing friendship

S'pore's pragmatic approach has guided its relations with China since ties were formalised in 1990

Then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew welcoming Chinese patriarch Deng Xiaoping to Singapore in November 1978.
Then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew welcoming Chinese patriarch Deng Xiaoping to Singapore in November 1978.
Singapore’s then Foreign Minister Wong Kan Seng (at right) with his Chinese counterpart Qian Qichen after signing a communique formalising diplomatic ties on Oct 3, 1990. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

When Singapore and China formalised diplomatic relations on Oct 3, 1990, it was a no-fuss affair held in a function room at the United Nations complex in New York.

After signing a communique within two minutes, their foreign ministers Wong Kan Seng and Qian Qichen shook hands and made a "toast to our friendship".

This year, the two countries mark the 25th anniversary of diplomatic relations with a series of events and activities, capped by the exchange of state visits by President Tony Tan Keng Yam and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, who arrives in Singapore today.

That day in October 1990 was the fruition of two important visits - the first by then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew to China in 1976, followed by Chinese patriarch Deng Xiao- ping's visit to Singapore in 1978.

Though bilateral trade and exchanges had grown healthily in the intervening years, Singapore, keen to dispel any notion of being a third China, made a deliberate decision to hold off formalising ties until all its fellow Asean founding members - Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand - had done so.

Singapore's pragmatic approach, which reflects its awareness of geopolitical concerns, has guided its relations with China over the years.

Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh, who led the Singapore side in talks with China, said the signing was kept low-key as "Singaporeans are a very pragmatic people".

"We attach more importance to substance than to form," he told The Straits Times. "The bilateral relationship has expanded in all directions, in depth as well as in breadth. Both sides view this as a very important bilateral relationship."

In fact, Mr Lee was quoted as saying in July 1990 that establishing diplomatic ties was not such a great event as the relationship depended more on whether China would be contributing to peace and stability or to instability by exporting revolution.


Still, the establishment of diplomatic relations gave an early boost to bilateral ties and cooperation. President Wee Kim Wee was Singa- pore's first head of state to visit China in September 1991. His Chinese counterpart Yang Shangkun visited Singapore in January 1992.

China is now Singapore's largest trade partner, with two-way trade reaching $121.5 billion last year. Singapore's cumulative investments as of last year totalled US$72.3 billion (S$101.9 billion). It has been China's largest foreign investor since 2013, based on figures in the first nine months of this year.

The number of trade and study missions to Singapore hit a record 142 in 1992 from 63 a year earlier. Close to 50,000 Chinese officials have visited Singapore on study tours or training trips so far.

Bilateral cooperation deepened after Deng went on his famous Southern Tour of coastal provinces in 1992 to revitalise China's reforms and cited Singapore as a model for China's development.

His remarks prompted a flow of officials to Singapore keen to learn about its experiences. Soon after, Mr Lee proposed a joint project to facilitate transfer of knowledge and build ties between younger leaders.

It led to the setting up of the Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP) in 1994 as a model for China's urban and industrial development.

Buoyed by the SIP's success, both sides in 2008 began another government-led project - Tianjin Eco- City - as China sought solutions in balancing environmental concerns and economic growth. In the same year, both countries signed the China-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (CSFTA), the first comprehensive bilateral FTA that China inked with another Asian country.

Since 2010, both sides have launched a new model of collaboration - led by the private sectors and supported by the governments - through various projects such as the Guangzhou Knowledge City.

The arrival of pandas Kai Kai and Jia Jia from China in 2012 was another high point in bilateral ties.

Singapore-Sino expert Sun Jing- feng of Henan Normal University said that because they share similar cultures and traditions, the two countries have a unique relationship.

"We were lucky that Lee Kuan Yew and Deng Xiaoping were leaders at the time that their countries had complementary needs. China was eager to learn governance expertise from others and Singapore was keen to tap the Chinese market," Professor Sun told The Straits Times.

Mr Toby Koh, 45, group managing director of Singapore security solutions firm Ademco, said close ties and Singapore's image as a clean, high-tech society were two factors that helped his firm enter the Chinese market in 1995 and set up its first joint venture in the remote north-western Gansu province.

Since 2011, Mr Koh has noticed more Chinese firms seeking out cyber-security services from Ademco.

"Chinese clients say they are more comfortable doing business with Singapore. This trust couldn't have happened overnight," he said.

Closer ties have also led to more people-to-people exchanges.

Mr Tan Ming Jiang, 25, a final- year student at the National University of Singapore's School of Design and Environment, said that taking part in a two-week exchange programme in 2013 led him to apply for a master's programme at Tsinghua University in Beijing next year.

"Interactions with my Chinese peers opened my eyes to their thinking and motivation in life - stuff I would not have learnt from textbooks," he told The Straits Times.


For sure, there have been some low points in bilateral relations.

For instance, Mr Lee, on a visit to China in 1997, publicly lamented the slow progress at the SIP and criticised local officials for diverting investments to a rival business park.

The dispute was resolved after Singapore reduced its 65 per cent majority stake so as to increase the sense of ownership on China's part.

Ties also took a dip in 2004 over a private and unofficial visit by then Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to Taiwan in July - before he became Prime Minister in August - to meet friends he last saw in 1992. The trip angered China, which suspended key bilateral exchanges.


Nevertheless, the relationship that both sides have often described as special, has remained strong.

Apart from commemorating 25 years of formal ties, Mr Xi's visit is expected to mark progress on new areas of cooperation, such as a third government-led project in western China with a theme of modern connectivity and modern services.

Financial cooperation has become a key area as well. Singapore is now the largest offshore renminbi centre outside China. Singapore has also backed Beijing-led initiatives such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and its plans to revive two Silk Road routes.

But there are challenges, such as maintaining the value of Singapore's branding amid cooperation with China.

Singapore-based analyst Hoo Tiang Boon of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies said Singapore also faces the challenge of striking a delicate balance between China and the United States.

"This is not a new factor, but Singapore must constantly be alert to 'new' dynamics that point to the development of a serious rivalry between the US and China," he added.

As for Singaporean businesses, Mr Wu Hsioh Kwang, 65, executive chairman of Straco Corp which entered the Chinese market in 1980, said they need to view China with a new perspective as it has become stronger and its enterprises are raring to expand overseas.

"We need to stop asking what we can do in China and start asking what we can do and identify the opportunities as China steps out," the vice-president of the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry told The Straits Times.

Strategically, both sides will need to continue building mutual trust at all levels and expanding economic cooperation, said Prof Sun.

"If both sides maintain the principle of mutual understanding and respect for each other's core interests, even on the Taiwan and South China Sea issues, the relationship will continue to produce win-win outcomes," he added.


Milestones in S'pore-Sino ties

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PM Lee on more room for partnerships

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 06, 2015, with the headline Low-key start to flourishing friendship. Subscribe