A David-and-Goliath tussle

  China and Singapore are embroiled in an unexpected row over Taiwan. The confrontation could affect the way other Asian countries see China
  Far Eastern Economic Review
August 5, 2004


GIANT CHINA AND TINY SINGAPORE are engaged in a high-stakes game of diplomatic chicken that will influence the way the rapidly rising Chinese mainland is seen by the rest of Asia. Having objected to a recent visit to Taiwan by Singapore Prime Minister-designate Lee Hsien Loong, Beijing is demanding that Singapore make unspecified amends for hurting "the core interests of China and the feelings of 1.3 billion Chinese people." Singapore is standing firm, insisting on its right to make independent decisions.

The confrontation is bizarre in many ways, as the two countries are friends that have cooperated closely since establishing diplomatic relations in 1990. Still, Beijing has increased the pressure by cancelling bilateral exchanges. Lee finds himself facing the first major test of his leadership even before he takes office on August 12. For Beijing, the risk is that its charm offensive in Southeast Asia could turn sour.

In the opinion of neutral diplomats, there can be only one winner: Singapore either capitulates, or Beijing retreats. "China wants to use Singapore to deter others," says a senior Singapore official. "If they can make us blink or buckle, then they send a strong signal to everybody else."

China has never been happy with aspects of Singapore's relations with Taipei, but Beijing hasn't allowed that to stand in the way of warm ties with predominantly Chinese Singapore. The island republic has made amends, in Beijing's eyes, by adopting a "one-China" policy and vigorously opposing Taiwan independence. Singapore's leaders have also offered their expertise to help China develop, notably with a government-sponsored industrial park in the eastern Chinese city of Suzhou.

Beijing's main objection, rarely voiced publicly, is that Singapore's armed forces train in Taiwan. It is an open secret, though never acknowledged by the Singapore government, that its military has used Taiwan since the 1970s for large combined-arms exercises. Singapore lacks the open space for military manoeuvres, and regards the use of Taiwan as vital for national security. Singapore pays Taipei for the use of its facilities, but does not train with the Taiwan military.

Beijing has offered Singapore the use of Hainan Island in southern China as an alternative training site, but the Singaporeans don't take the offer seriously. They say privately that their non-Chinese neighbours often suspect that Singapore is fronting for China, and to switch military training to the People's Republic would tend to confirm those fears.

To maintain the military-training arrangement and cordial relations, Singapore and Taiwan exchange periodic visits at senior level. Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew, father of Lee Hsien Loong, is among the ministers who continue to go to Taipei. The visits have become a ritual: Singapore ministers officially take leave, notice of which is published in the government gazette, so they can describe the trip to Taiwan as private; Singapore informs Beijing, which asks that the visit not take place and threatens unspecified consequences if it does; Singapore goes ahead anyway.

Lee Hsien Loong's July 11-13 foray followed the familiar pattern, except that Beijing ratcheted up the rhetoric. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesmen denounced the trip as "difficult to comprehend" and damaging to the "political foundation of China-Singapore relations." China has since cancelled a visit to Singapore by its central bank governor, delayed invitations for Singapore officials to visit a Chinese provincial capital, and may postpone talks on a free-trade agreement scheduled for November. Beijing has taken limited retaliatory action against Singapore in the past.

China was clearly angered by the publicity that the Taiwan media gave to Lee's presence. For example, newspapers recorded that he was given a reception normally reserved for a head of state, and met both President Chen Shui-bian and Premier Yu Shyi-kun, as well as the political opposition. The local media also reported, incorrectly according to the Singapore government, that Lee was accompanied by his defence minister, carried messages from Beijing, sought to establish himself as a cross-strait interlocutor and discussed ways of advancing a Singapore-Taiwan free-trade agreement.

The only obvious differences between Lee's visit and numerous earlier ones that might help explain China's extreme reaction: Beijing-Taipei relations have deteriorated sharply since Chen was re-elected president in March, and Singapore announced in mid-July that Lee would succeed Goh Chok Tong as prime minister. Singaporeans have little doubt that Beijing is putting the heat on Lee, 52, to test his resolve. "They wouldn't try it with Lee Kuan Yew," says one. Added reader Goh Sin Tub, in a letter to the Straits Times, "Singaporeans must stand shoulder to shoulder with" Lee Hsien Loong.

The way Singapore sees it, the Chinese fully understand that Singapore's stance on Taiwan hasn't shifted. The larger issue is that bigger countries will always try to squeeze smaller ones, says one official. "They are trying to make us define our core interests subordinate to their core interests," he asserts. But "for us it's national survival in the end."

Beijing's tough talk apparently induced Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak to announce that all ministers had been ordered not to visit Taiwan to avoid offending China. He was promptly rewarded with a visit by Guo Boxiong, vice-chairman of China's Central Military Commission, who deliberately bypassed Singapore to ram home the message of Beijing's displeasure.

But not everyone in Southeast Asia appreciated what appeared to be China's attempted bullying. Ironically, it was Berita Harian, a Malay-language Malaysian newspaper, that praised Lee for standing up for the principle that "no country, big or small, can determine the direction of his country's foreign policy." Added the commentary, "Many think that Hsien Loong has succeeded in tackling this issue well."