At the National Day Rally, PM Lee spoke at length on the government’s position regarding the territorial claims of China, the Philippines and other countries on the South China Sea. Mr Lee highlighted that Singapore did not have any claim on the South China Sea and would not take sides in the dispute.
But it definitely matters to Singapore…
More importantly, he mentioned how important the dispute is to Singapore, citing three big factors that matter to Singapore and Singaporeans – international law, freedom of navigation and a united ASEAN. And of course, Mr Lee explained why these matter.
1) International Law
Upholding International law and peacefully settling disputes is in Singapore’s interest. Singapore will have disputes with other countries from time to time and it is important to have means to resolve them. As Singapore lacks the pure military might of some countries, we often have to depend on “words and treaties”. And while some countries may decide to go against rulings by international tribunals, Singapore has to support and strive for international order, especially as a small country.
2) Freedom of navigation
Another important point raised by Mr Lee was that of freedom of navigation. Trade will always be a big part of Singapore’s economy and the South China Sea is one of the two main routes connecting Singapore with the international community. If the South China Sea was blocked off, it would create major disruptions in air and sea travel. Both of which would be terrible for Singapore’s progress.
3) A united ASEAN
Lastly, Mr Lee brought up the importance of keeping ASEAN together. The regional group has more than 600 million people and is vital in speaking up for the South East Asia’s interest. But ASEAN has faced difficulties in showcasing a united stand on the South China Sea issue because each country has their own interest. And naturally, a divided group doesn’t radiate collective strength.
So, yes, we have to look after our own interests
Mr Lee also spoke about concerns whether the Chinese media’s criticism of Singapore for not siding with China. He mentioned that Singapore’s relations with China have gone on for decades and Singapore has had many joint-projects with China, such as the Suzhou Industrial Park and Tianjin Eco-City, and is still working on more. He added that Singapore wants good relations with other countries but there will always be difficulties for both sides to face.
And actually, there are some Chinese who support us
Although PM’s comments made in US on urging China to accept the arbitration results have invited criticisms, a recent commentary in Zaobao by a PRC journalist noted that PM’s comments were taken out of context. The journalist also defended PM, saying that he was merely stating the facts and even showed that he understood why China did not accept the ruling.
To be stuck between US and China is not comfortable. Adding the neighbouring ASEAN countries into the picture, we are placed in a more precarious position. The art is finding that sweet spot and finding it soon.