Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a recent interview with Australia's ABC Radio National that many countries, including Singapore, see the Belt and Road initiative as a constructive way for China to integrate with other countries as China's influence in the region continues to grow. He said his country supports the Belt and Road initiative as well as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
These could be the most positive remarks Lee has made on China recently. Since last year, China and Singapore have witnessed a cooling relationship due to the latter's siding with the US and Japan regarding the South China Sea issue. The detention of nine armored vehicles of Singapore in Hong Kong added to the chill in the bilateral ties. Seven heads of state and governments of ASEAN countries participated in the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation held last month in Beijing, but Lee was absent. This sparked more controversy.
Through the interview, Lee seems to be showing a willingness to turn around the Sino-Singaporean relationship. As one of the core US allies among ASEAN countries, Singapore has long faced the difficulty of balancing between China and the US alongside Beijing's rise. As the country tries its best to strike a balance between the two sides, it tilts toward the US when a balance is impossible.
The reason for its choice is that as a small country sandwiched between two giants - Indonesia and Malaysia - Singapore's security is very fragile, and it has to rely on the US for the greatest security guarantee.
Singapore was the most active ASEAN country, besides the Philippines, that supported the South China Sea arbitration case. In addition, it opened its military base to US' anti-submarine reconnaissance aircraft for patrols over the South China Sea.
However, China is Singapore's largest trading partner. Plus, the entire ASEAN bloc emphasizes the relationship with China, and most members advocate caution in dealing with the world's two biggest countries.
More importantly, the administration of US President Donald Trump stresses cooperation with China and sent a delegation to the Belt and Road forum. This was followed by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's subtle change on his posture toward China. Singapore must have felt an unprecedented isolation.
Lee's positive comments on the Belt and Road are welcome. No matter what the Singapore government said and did previously, Beijing can move forward with it. It is the generosity a big country should have.
On the other hand, Singapore may not abandon its flip-flop diplomacy and China needs to be prepared for this. Singapore's diplomatic thinking is hard to change shortly. Lee Hsien Loong is less adept at balancing diplomacy than his father Lee Kuan Yew, and geopolitical competition in Asia nowadays has become more complicated. Therefore, Singapore is confronted with more difficulties.
Singapore is a former a colony of Britain. Its dependence on the US, not so special compared with other ASEAN countries, is driven by pragmatism of safeguarding its own interests. As China grows more powerful, it will naturally readjust the balance between China and the US.
China sent a delegation led by a Lieutenant General to this year's Shangri-La Dialogue. We feel that the level of this delegation is still a bit too high, and suggest a lower-level delegation be sent next year. The Shangri-La Dialogue is a platform Singapore built for the US and Japan, and China has no reason to show support to it.
In recent years, China sent fewer officials for training in Singapore, another sign of the decreasing influence of the country over China.
In a nutshell, China needs to take a normal attitude toward Singapore swinging between the US and China.