Michael Barr: PM Lee’s US visit risks riling Beijing again

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PM Lee Hsien Loong given official welcome by Chinese President Xi Jinping (PHOTO: Xinhua News)

 

Beyond a photo op with President Donald Trump and a contract to buy a few billion dollars’ worth of planes from Boeing, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong can expect anything else to be fraught with risks.

An article in the CNN said PM Lee would find it hard to pursue the objective of nudging President Trump to stay engaged  with Asia without offending an increasingly prickly China.

The author Michael Barr wrote: “Effusive praise from the American President is the stuff that politicians usually crave, but in this case, it would risk undoing the ‘good work’ Lee did during his recent visit to Beijing, where he seems to have been provisionally forgiven for his earlier lack of respect, much of which centred on Singapore’s role in (allegedly) promoting the American position over China’s activities in the South China Sea.”

Barr is an associate professor at Australia’s Flinders University and author of The Ruling Elite of Singapore.

It is difficult to imagine a national leadership anywhere in the world more in sync with Washington than Singapore’s — at least on international issues. Yet this is where their problems with China begin, he wrote.

The current generation of Singapore’s leaders — right down to the upper levels of the civil service — is so close to the Americans that they give the appearance of having mistaken the American establishment view for their own.

Behind the scenes in America, Lee and his entourage are likely to be on much more comfortable turf as they continue their long-term and highly successful engagement of the American foreign policy establishment and the American business community.

Singapore’s entire national leadership is at home walking these corridors of power, since most of them have studied, socialised and networked in them for decades — with PM Lee himself having studied in the United States Army Command and General Staff College in the 1970s.

The height of China’s backlash against Singapore came late in 2016 when it impounded millions of dollars-worth of Singapore’s defence equipment for several months as it was passing through Hong Kong harbour on its way back from exercises in Taiwan. And just as that impasse was being resolved it emerged that Chinese President Xi Jinping explicitly refused to invite Lee to the Belt and Road Forum in May 2017.

Between them, these Chinese actions threatened Singapore’s medium-term future in a way that could not be ignored — and to a degree that even overshadowed the benefits of American friendship.

The worst of the damage was undone in the lead up to PM Lee’s official visit to China last month when Lee gave an interview with Chinese state media. In the interview, he praised China’s development, stressed the strong ties between the two countries and listed a number “meaningful” joint projects.

“China is a big country, is a very complicated country, governance in China has never been a simple matter. But there is such courage and unity, China will certainly overcome all difficulties, certainly continue to develop, continue to move forward,” he said.

As a result of agreements signed off during the visit, Singapore is part of One Belt One Road again, but it would not take much to disturb the relationship all over again, Barr added.

China’s petulance has reinforced the Singapore leadership’s conviction that it needs the US in the Pacific and in the South China Sea as a balance to China, but how to work for that cause without inflaming China all over again?

This is PM Lee’s dilemma, Barr wrote, and unfortunately all of his US-centric training and experience and networking makes him particularly ill-suited to working through it. Dealing with both Xi and Trump would have been a tough enough problem for any Singaporean leader, but thanks to his earlier blundering, he now needs to tread with particular care.

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