Lee Hsien Loong’s recent unexpected trip to China and especially the way Singapore’s prime minister was received by Chinese leaders suggests that Beijing may have adopted a new approach in dealing with not only the city-state but also its other smaller neighbors.
Lee’s three-day official visit that began September 19 came abruptly because, as revealed by the state-run Global Times, it was announced just four days before.
Although his visit was unheralded, Lee was grandly treated by the communist leadership in Beijing. On his last outing four years ago, Lee met only President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang. But this time he was received not only by China’s two highest leaders but also Zhang Dejiang, chairman of the communist-run country’s parliament, the National People’s Congress, and Wang Qishan, head of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, China’s powerful anti-corruption body. Zhang and Wang are members of the all-powerful seven-seat Politburo Standing Committee (PSC).
Did warm welcome make up for earlier snub?
That Beijing extended such a warm and high-level welcome to a regional leader it had recently snubbed was also intriguing. In May, Lee was not invited to China’s inaugural Belt and Road Forum, a high-profile gathering attended by 28 heads of state/government, including seven from the ASEAN region.
It is all the more remarkable given the fact that the trip took place just a few weeks before the Communist Party of China (CPC) holds its crucial five-yearly national congress, where it will renew its top leadership.
In politics and in Chinese politics in particular, timing and gestures are often very meaningfulI
In politics and in Chinese politics in particular, timing and gestures are often very meaningful. So the Singaporean leader’s China visit was highly noteworthy.
For the Global Times, a semi-official Chinese newspaper, Lee’s unforeseen trip was “widely characterized as Singapore’s attempt to adjust its Beijing policy.”
This typically hawkish news outlet and some Chinese experts it interviewed argued that China’s quick rise was, among others, a key reason behind Singapore’s recalibration of its ties with Beijing.
Without doubt, due to many (national, regional and international) factors, Asia’s biggest economy and military is of great importance to Singapore’s security and especially its economic prosperity. It is thus vital that the city-state maintains good ties with Beijing, and Lee Hsien Loong’s trip was undoubtedly an attempt to steady recently deteriorated ties.
Yet, this does not mean that the recalibration was solely on Singapore’s part or that the Lion City is irrelevant to the People’s Republic.
That the trip took place at a busy and delicate time for China and that four of its all-powerful PSC hosted the guest shows Beijing attached a great significance to its relations with Singapore. In fact, it was the first time since his first official visit to China as prime minister in 2005 that Lee was received by four members of the apex decision-making body of both the 90-million-member CPC and the 1.3-billion-strong country.
Visit hints at softening of China’s regional posture
For some, the timing of the visit and the unusually high-level reception Beijing granted Lee may mark the “end of an era in which China has sometimes acted like a giant with a superiority complex.” Instead of forcing smaller countries to make concessions as it has traditionally done, this view contends, China may now be magnanimous towards them.
That China has used its size and new-found power to intimidate other countries, especially its smaller neighbors, to accept its policies and its South China Sea posture, in particular, is widely maintained.
Time will show whether its atypically warm welcome for Lee marks a new and positive shift in China’s dealings with its smaller neighbors and whether it makes such a change, if any, because it genuinely believes and treats them as equals as its leaders have often professed.
What is obvious is that Beijing extended the official invitation and the high-level reception to Lee Hsien Loong because although it might be simply a “little red dot,” Singapore is significantly relevant to China.
During Lee’s visit, Premier Li and state-run media all acknowledged, that the 719-sq-km island city-state is an important member of ASEAN.
Singapore a diplomatic bellwether in ASEAN
A Chinese expert interviewed by Global Times, an English-language offshoot of the CPP’s mouthpiece People’s Daily, even conceded that Singapore, with its 5.8-million population, “has the international influence of a world power and plays the role of a bellwether among ASEAN countries for diplomacy.”
Next year, Singapore will assume the annual chairmanship of the 10-member association. In that role, it will ordinate — indeed, have a big say on — many of ASEAN’s internal and external affairs, such as the South China Sea issue.
Concerns that it may face new criticism over its actions in the strategically vital and hotly disputed sea route under the chairmanship of Singapore, which was very critical of — perhaps remains concerned about — Beijing’s maritime behavior, could be a key reason behind Chinese bonhomie with Lee.
Lee aligns with the US on security issues
Moreover, whilst China is Singapore’s largest economic partner, America is its most important security ally. That’s why, like Lee Kuan Yew, Lee’s father and predecessor as prime minister, the son has, by and large, aligned with Washington and its allies on several major regional security issues, such as the South China Sea dispute. He has also been receptive to the US’s strong engagement with the region, mainly to balance China’s rising dominance.
These are among the main reasons behind the strained ties between the two countries in the past year and China’s deliberate snub of Lee Hsien Loong in its Belt and Road Forum summit.
Though under President Donald Trump Singapore’s relations with Washington are not as warm as during the Barack Obama administration, this relationship remains robust and its dynamics still have a considerable impact on the wider region.
Together with its acknowledgment of Singapore’s geopolitical relevance, China may also have realized that its coercive posture could alienate the island and push it closer to America, its main global and regional rival. This, coupled with the fact that Lee’s unexpected China trip took place shortly before his long-planned America visit, scheduled next month, could be a key factor prompting Beijing to revitalize ties with Singapore.
All in all, while it is uncertain whether Beijing’s recent overture toward Singapore is a genuine desire to treat its smaller neighbor as an equal or a merely calculated move, what is clear is that such an approach is undoubtedly more advisable than intimidation.