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Singapore resets China ties

By M K Bhadrakumar | Indian Punchline | September 20, 2017

The visit by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to China (Sept 19-21) will be keenly watched in Delhi. It is no secret that over the years Singapore has significantly influenced the Indian discourses regarding China. Although the bamboo curtain lifted a long time ago, India’s ‘China watchers’, aside a clutch of noble exceptions, rely largely on second-hand knowledge, and Singapore being the West’s outpost, became a watering hole for think tankers speculating on the ‘takeaways’ from China’s rise.

Coincidence or not, Singapore-China relations also went downhill through the past 3-year period – similar to the trajectory of Sino-Indian ties under Modi government. The common factors were rather striking: Singapore was the only ASEAN country – like India in the South Asian region – to urge that China should “fully respect” the South China Sea arbitration award in June last year (although the island state, like India, was not party to the territorial dispute); Singapore too has been disdainful toward China’s Belt and Road Initiative; Singapore cozied up to Taiwan; and, Lee departed from the wise policy of striking a careful balance between China and the US laid down by Lee Kuan Yew, to embrace the US as geopolitical ally.

Thus, Lee’s visit to China signals a significant adjustment in Singapore’s strategic posturing, riveted in the recent years on the US’ ‘pivot to Asia’. While receiving him in Beijing on Wednesday, Chinese President Xi Jinping said the strengthening of political trust and the consolidation of bilateral relations are not only in mutual interests but also will benefit peace, stability and prosperity of the region and globally.

All this may come as disappointment to pundits in India who are wedded to the belief that Singapore shares their adversarial mindset toward China. On the contrary, Singapore realizes that the containment strategy against China has become a relic of history and the smart thing to do is to re-engage China. In some ways, it’s the old political adage, If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.’  In an exclusive interview with Xinhua news agency on Friday Lee expressed willingness to see Singapore as a hub for Chinese business and headquarters of some Belt and Road projects, based on its advantages in finance, transportation, trade and services.

Through the past 3-year period, China began engaging with Malaysia as a key interlocutor for the BRI in the ASEAN region. The message was loud and clear in the Chinese investment ($7.2 billion) to develop Malacca as a new deep-sea port rivalling Singapore. China also unfolded big plans to expand relations with Malaysia. It has committed to import goods worth $2 trillion from Malaysia over the next five years (a nearly eight-fold jump from 2016 imports over that period), invest up to $150 billion in the country and offer 10,000 places for training in China. During Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s visit to China last December, deals worth $33.6 billion crystallized.

China hopes that Lee’s visit provides an opportunity to canvass its bid for the prestigious 360 kilometere long high-speed railway project connecting Singapore with Kuala Lumpur (which will cut travel time to about 45 minutes.) Premier Li Keqiang raised the topic upfront with Lee on Tuesday at their meeting in Beijing. From Lee’s initial remarks, Singapore takes a positive view of the Chinese bid.

Another point of interest for China will be that Singapore is assuming the chairmanship of the ASEAN next year. Beijing appreciated that last month at the ASEAN conclaves, Singapore played a lead role to promote the finalization of a code of conduct between the grouping and China regarding the South China Sea. Conceivably, China sees Singapore as a bellwether within the ASEAN.

Lee’s visit to China comes before the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (October 18) and Trump’s state visit to China in November. Lee is due to visit the US in October. From all appearances, Singapore appears to be inserting itself into the ‘new type of big-power relations’ reshaping the geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific while also positioning itself at a crucial juncture of political transition in the Chinese leadership.

Singapore is well clued in traditionally on the alignments within the Chinese leadership. Interestingly, amongst other top Chinese leaders, Lee is meeting the Secretary of the Communist Party of China Central Commission for Discipline Inspection Wang Qishan. Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan visited China in June after which he disclosed that the two countries have agreed to work together on the Belt and Road Initiative. This was followed by a meeting between Lee and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Hamburg on the sidelines of the G20 summit during which cooperation within the framework of BRI figured. Clearly, there has been a build-up toward Lee’s visit to China, which is taking place after an unusual hiatus of 3 years.

September 20, 2017 - Posted by | Economics, Timeless or most popular | , ,

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