By Tom Cang in Beijing
Singaporeans tend to look at China’s leaders with ambiguity, much like watching a very powerful distant relative with wariness and caution tinged with a modicum of pride. Every move is analysed, but there is no way to confirm the suspicions.
At the recent Apec meetings in Bali, Chinese president Xi Jinping made the necessary rounds of networking, hobnobbing with Russian president Vladimir Putin, and holding talks with South Korean president Park Geun-hye, Thailand prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Malaysian PM Najib Razak and his host, Indonesian president Susilo. Bambang Yudhoyono
But observers noticed he did not officially meet Singapore PM Lee Hsien Loong. They also noted that Xi did not stop over at Singapore while on his way to Indonesia, but he visited Malaysia after.
Chinese PM Li Keqiang will tour Brunei, Thailand and Vietnam after the Asean summits, but also not drop by Singapore.
So, the conclusion is generally: “When two top Chinese leaders visit many Southeast Asian nations but ignore Singapore, when top Chinese leaders meet the leaders of many other countries but not Singapore’s, maybe that is a hint that China is unhappy with Singapore.”
Some even quote “well-placed sources that said Chinese leaders are livid over PM Lee’s jokes about China’s environmental issues at a state dinner in Washington”. Among other things, he said, “Beijing residents joke that to get a free smoke all they have to do is open their windows!” The same “well-placed sources” also said “China has its way of getting its revenge at the right place and the right time”.
Such conjecture seems to reflect a rather narrow view of how China conducts its diplomatic relations.
In the first place, it underestimates the historical and lengthy relationship between China and Singapore. Lee Kuan Yew has maintained goodwill with five generations of Chinese leaders from Chairman Mao onwards, and only Henry Kissinger has the same diplomatic standing with Beijing.
China will not ignore Singapore’s contribution as an arbitrator in cross-Straits relationships, or its many contributions in the transfer of essential technology. Even now, many Singaporeans are the major motivators in industries such as hospitality. Singapore is the only country that trains a significant number of Chinese party cadres and government officials.
Another consideration is Singapore’s role as an ASEAN leader, heading a major regional political think-tank. China is certainly looking towards Singapore for an impartial solution to the disputes in the South China Sea.
Ever since the Deng Xiaoping era, China has regarded Singapore as a model for many socio-economic issues, such as housing, transport and tourism among others.
The current leaders are just as interested in a closer look at how Singapore operates, and it was said that CCTV, China’s national television station, was sent down specifically to document its latest progress.
There is no country in the world, in relation to size and geopolitical importance, that China already regards so highly.
Having said that, Singapore observers should keep one thing in mind. China is a player on the world stage. It engages countries like the United States and Russia on an equal footing. It is forming partnerships like BRIC, for example and is a major financial force lubricating deals in Europe, the Americas and in Africa.
In China’s eye, Singapore is a good friend, but it has a relatively small part in the diplomatic machinery China has to keep constantly oiled.
PM Lee and DPM Teo Chee Hean both visited Beijing recently and were received with the proper attention. Not talking at Apec may simply mean there are no important issues to talk about, this time.
Good friends should have enough mutual understanding not to be second-guessing all the time.
Tom Cang is a veteran journalist who has worked at the People’s Daily, Lianhe Zaobao and China Daily.