Tommy Koh defends S’pore from accusations by Chinese diplomat

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[Headline photo: Straits Times]

Singapore’s relationship with China has been going through a bump in recent months. And on Wednesday, Senior Chinese diplomat Ruan Zongze once again accused Singapore of doing things which have affected bilateral ties.

“These included trying to get other Asean countries to release a joint statement after an international tribunal’s ruling against Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea last year, and saying publicly that the tribunal’s award is legally binding and countries should abide by it,” the Straits Times reported Mr Ruan as having said at the 12th China-Singapore forum.

Another sticking point for Mr Ruan was Singapore’s relationship with the United States. Mr Ruan apparently took 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.

China’s unhappiness or displeasure with Singapore over these issues was believed to have resulted in Hong Kong seizing 9 Terrex military vehicles which were en route to Singapore from Taiwan last year.

The Chinese diplomat’s accusations, however, were denied by Singapore’s Ambassador-At-Large, Tommy Koh, who was also a speaker at the forum.

Professor Koh explained that Mr Ruan’s accusation that Singapore had tried to encourage Asean members to issue a joint-statement over the South China Sea issue was untrue.

“What did we do? We did the minimum possible without sacrificing our own national interests: We took note of the award,” Prof Koh said.

He added: “We asked each of the nine Asean countries what is their position, what can they subscribe to in the joint statement, that is all we did,” he said.

“We were an honest facilitator, trying to find out whether there is a consensus among the 10 Asean countries, but always conscious that our national interest is to promote peace and cooperation between Asean and China.”

The ambassador also said that Singapore wants to be have close relationships with all major powers, but does not align itself with any of them.

He added, however, “Singapore will never allow its relationship with any major power to harm China”.

Prof Koh’s remarks is not the first time he has tried to explain Singapore’s policy with regard to China and the US, and why China has misunderstood Singapore’s position on various related issues.

In an article for the Straits Times in October last year, he laid out “4 areas of misunderstanding” vis a vis “China’s perception of Singapore”.

These include:

Singapore is a Chinese nation

“Many friends in China mistakenly perceive Singapore as a Chinese nation, describing us as “kith and kin”,” he wrote. “They feel that since Singaporeans are fellow Chinese, we should have a better understanding of China’s policies than the other Asean countries. They also expect Singapore to support China’s policies. I believe that this is one source of misunderstanding between us. China has to understand that Singapore is a multiracial and not a Chinese nation. Further, as a sovereign and independent country, Singapore’s interests are not always similar to those of China.”

Singapore’s commitment to Asean

Without naming any country in particular, he said that “any attempt to undermine Asean unity would be regarded by Singapore as a threat to its national interest.”

Singapore’s relationship with major powers

“Singapore’s foreign policy is to pursue an independent course and not to be allied to any major power,” Prof Koh said.

Explaining that “Singapore is not a US ally”, the ambassador said “some of my friends in China are not happy with the warm relations which Singapore enjoys with Washington.”

“They have mistakenly accused Singapore of being a US ally and of siding with the US against China. The truth is that Singapore enjoys warm relations with both Washington and Beijing.”

A different world view

Prof Koh said Singapore and China adopt different world views because of the size of their countries.

“Singapore, like other small countries, wants to live in a world which is governed by laws, rules and principles and not by might or by force,” he said.

For China, he said its world view “would be quite different from that of Singapore.”

“It is important for each side to understand the world view of the other,” he said. “Otherwise, China would not understand why Singapore attaches so much importance to international law and to binding third-party dispute settlement.”

In January this year, following the Terrexes incident, Prof Koh said, “I think the detention of the nine Terrex vehicles in Hong Kong has to do with the increasingly acrimonious relations across the straits, and between Beijing and Washington.”

He said that the Sino-US relationship was “very likely to turn confrontational”, and that all countries, including small nations such as Singapore, would be part of the “collateral damage” in such a scenario. (TODAY)

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