Not Invited: Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Photo: AFP
China’s decision not to invite Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to last weekend’s Belt and Road Forum highlights the still-strained ties between the two countries, observers say, though officials in the Lion City have tried to shrug off talk of any diplomatic rift.
Of the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) members, only three countries were not represented by their heads of government at the high-level summit in Beijing: Singapore, Thailand and Brunei. Twenty-nine national leaders and the representatives of 28 other countries attended the two-day meeting to discuss the China-led initiative to rebuild the ancient Silk Road trade route through a network of new ports, railways and roads.
The Singapore delegation was led by national development minister Lawrence Wong, while Thailand was represented by foreign minister Don Pramudwinai and four other cabinet ministers. Brunei, the tiny but oil-rich kingdom ruled by Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, was represented by second foreign minister Lim Jock Seng.
In an interview with travelling Singaporean media, Wong revealed that the invitations were decided by China. It was the first official acknowledgement that Lee was not invited. In sharp contrast, regional counterparts including Malaysia’s Najib Razak, Indonesia’s Joko Widodo and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte prominently highlighted their participation in the summit on social media. Lee’s office did not respond to This Week in Asia’s queries on the matter.
The Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, Indonesia’s Joko Widodo and Malaysia’s Najib Razak in a photo shared on Najib’s Twitter account. Photo: Twitter
Smaller nations with less-established diplomatic ties with Beijing also sent their heads of government to the summit. These included Fiji, Chile, Greece, and Hungary.
Britain sent finance minister Philip Hammond, the government’s de facto number two, while the US delegation was led by White House adviser Matt Pottinger.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a Southeast Asian foreign policy expert, said in the case of some countries like Thailand, heads of government were probably left off the guest list because of their peripheral geographical location in the sea and land routes linking China with the rest of Asia and Africa.
But while nearly half of the 57 countries were not represented by their heads of government, foreign policy experts said Lee’s absence was conspicuous as it provided clues on the extent of the fallout following a protracted diplomatic spat between the two countries over the past year.
Xue Li, a senior research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences think tank, said China’s decision not to invite the Singaporean leader reflected a growing belief in Beijing that the Lion City sought only economic benefits from China, while “relying on the US for security”.
“China is gradually recognising this and therefore doesn’t really care if the Singapore PM attended or not,” Xue said.
Michael Tai, a Singapore-China watcher at Cambridge University, said the non-invite showed the city state had “not patched things up with Beijing since last year’s Non-Aligned Movement Summit incident”. He was referring to the public exchange of words between Stanley Loh, the Singaporean envoy in Beijing, and the state-linked Global Times newspaper over a report on the city state’s position on the South China Sea dispute during last year’s Non-Aligned Movement Summit.