PM Lee’s absence in B&R forum in Beijing – is China still throwing a tantrum?

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The reply by Minister of National Development, Lawrence Wong, was a curious and perhaps a telling one.

When asked by reporters on Tuesday why Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was not attending the Belt and Road forum in Beijing, Mr Wong said “the invitation was decided by the Chinese”, according to the Straits Times.

Mr Wong did not seem to have elaborated on his answer.

PM Lee’s absence has not gone unnoticed, given how several leaders from Asean countries were among the 29 heads of states who apparently were invited and attended the forum which ran from 14-15 May.

Considering that the forum was also an important one, for China especially, the fact that PM Lee was not there is quite curious. After all, Singapore and China share, at least according to official statements, “deep ties’.

So, is China snubbing PM Lee personally? And if it is, what are the reasons for doing so?

First, the Chinese do seem to be taking it rather personally, with its apparent non-invite of PM Lee but still welcoming a Singapore representative (Mr Wong) to the forum.

The unhappiness with PM Lee could be because of the Singapore Prime Minister’s remarks in recent months, most notably his visit to Washington last year where he was feted by then US President Barack Obama at a special White House dinner.

“As President, your personal leadership and decision to rebalance to Asia has won America new friends and strengthened old partnerships, including with Singapore,” PM Lee said during a toast to Mr Obama.

He went on to describe the American leader as “America’s first Pacific President”.

PM Lee’s remarks angered China, which reacted through the Global Times, a pro-Government newspaper.

“Lee Hsien Loong addressed Obama as the American ‘first Pacific President’. Such flattery (‘戴高帽’) given to Obama directly does not concern us (‘倒也没啥’),” the article said.

“The key is he praised the American strategy to ‘re-balance Asia-Pacific’ and publicised that all Southeast Asian countries welcome such American ‘balancing’. Because the ‘rebalance Asia-Pacific’ strategy is pointed at China to a large extent, Lee Hsien Loong is clearly taking side already.”

Ever since the incident, China has been throwing a tantrum, which escalated to the seizure of 9 terrex military vehicles earlier this year. The vehicles are owned by Singapore and were on their way back from training exercises in Taiwan, en route via Hong Kong, when they were seized.

It took 3 months before China would release the vehicles and return them to Singapore.

Chinese officials have also publicly chided Singapore for trying to influence Asean countries to support the International Court of Justice’s decision over the South China Sea issue, an allegation which Singapore has strenuously denied.

Another sticking point for the Chinese was Singapore’s relationship with the United States. An official had taken issue with Singapore allowing the US to deploy military vessels and aircraft meant for “close-in reconnaissance in China’s South China Sea” since last year.

Seen in the light of these events and incidents, China’s snubbing of PM Lee in the Belt and Road forum would be signs that the Chinese are still holding grudges.

The Government of Xi Jinping should not, and move on from this petty squabble with a country, albeit a small one, which has always been on its side.

But even as Beijing behaves somewhat like a bully, especially over the terrex incident, the two countries have continued to speak to each other, and this is important and necessary.

The very day after the end of the Belt and Road forum in Beijing, Singapore hosted Mr Zhao Leji, Member of the Political Bureau and Minister of the Organisation Department of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, at the 6th China-Singapore Forum on Leadership.

Mr Zhao later met with PM Lee at the Istana and the two “affirmed both countries’ strong and substantial relationship“, said Ms Chang Li Lin, PM Lee’s press secretary.

“The two leaders noted that bilateral relations dated back to 1976, when then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew first visited China, and 1978, when then-PRC (People’s Republic of China) Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping visited Singapore. Mr Lee and Mr Deng provided a strong foundation for the friendship and cooperation that the two countries now enjoy,” she added.

Indeed, PM Lee said the same last year.

“It is a broad and substantial relationship,” he told the media in September. “We have been friends for a long time. We cooperate in many areas — economic, trade, education, culture and on political issues too. And also regionally with Asean.”

China has to understand that Singapore is not China, and that our national interests do not always align with Beijing’s. Singapore has to negotiate itself into a viable position, often sandwiched between the interests of major powers such as the US and China.

And in doing so, there will, from time to time, be instances where we may not see eye to eye. But such things are to be expected in international relations, and should be worked out behind closed doors through dialogue and compromise even.

Beijing should thus stop throwing tantrums and snubbing PM Lee because by doing so it only serves to deepen suspicions among countries of Beijing’s agenda to bully its way through issues which it sees as important to itself.

For Singapore, it should continue to do what it does best – stay engaged, be pragmatic and realistic, and work quietly, behind the glare of publicity, to find solutions which best serve the country’s interests.

And this is no doubt what Mr Wong will be doing as he attends the World Cities Summit Mayors Forum in Suzhou on 17 May.