A resurgent China that does not pass up any opportunity to flex her muscles is the current reality that countries have to deal with now. For small countries like Singapore that wants to and needs to be friends with every country, it means having to deal with the subtle and not-so-subtle pressures that China exerts.
A case in point was Prof Tommy Koh’s defence of Singapore at the 12th China-Singapore Forum held in Beijing.
The Straits Times reported on 11 May that at a public session at the forum, senior Chinese diplomat Dr Ruan Zongze had accused Singapore of taking actions in recent years that adversely affected bilateral ties. Not very diplomatic I must say.
Referring to China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea, Dr Ruan accused Singapore of “trying to get other Asean countries to release a joint statement after an international tribunal’s ruling against Beijing’s claims, and saying publicly that the tribunal’s award is legally binding and countries should abide by it.” Dr Ruan added that “Singapore has also allowed the United States to deploy military vessels and aircraft meant for “close-in reconnaissance in China’s South China Sea” since last year, though it claimed not to be aligned with the US”.
To these baseless accusations, Prof Koh put up a robust defence.
Prof Koh said that Singapore acted very carefully after the tribunal’s decision: It did not issue a statement supporting the ruling, or call on China to comply with it. Prof Koh added that “We were an honest facilitator, trying to find out whether there is a consensus among the 10 Asean countries, but always conscious that our national interest is to promote peace and cooperation between Asean and China.” Prof Koh even said that Singapore is one of China’s few “all-weather friends”. Do the Chinese really buy that? Somehow, I do not think they are convinced.
I get it that China has been subjugated for many years by different colonial powers, so now is China’s turn in the sun. But the way that they have been going about their business has left a bad taste, bullying their way through everything. Singapore cannot side with either China or Japan, or with China or the US, or with China or any one of the South China Sea claimant states. We cannot afford to get embroiled in these disputes and we have always emphasised that disputes have to be resolved according to international law. Any other approach will mean that small countries will get pushed around by larger countries.
To be sure, China will use all the levers at her disposal to put the squeeze on us to side with them or support their causes. The Terrex saga was an example of this. I am sure there was much discussion between both countries behind the scenes to resolve the impasse. You can bet your last dollar that the Terrex saga will not be the last thorn in our bilateral relations.
Singapore just has to continue to perform this delicate dance and not compromise our national interests along the way.