SAY you have investments in China. And your Chinese partners start weighing in on how Singapore should be more supportive of China because any tension will affect business, what should you say to them? Singaporeans here have raised such concerns, said PM Lee during the National Day Rally speech last night (Aug 21), especially in the wake of the South China Sea (SCS) squabble.
The SCS squabble (read about it here) is about who owns what part of the sea. Singapore is not a claimant state like its Asean neighbours: Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam. But the SCS issue matters to Singapore because it’s also about resolving international disputes anchored in a rules-based international order. In this case, the rules underpinned by the UN Convention is on the Law of the Sea (Unclos). The Hague tribunal issued a ruling last month (July 12), based on Unclos, on the SCS dispute between China and the Philippines. The ruling favoured the Philippines. China had refused to be a part of the tribunal when the case was brought against them three years back. And on July this year, it rejected the ruling as “null and void”.
PM Lee did not say so in his rally speech, but basically what it means is that China is not playing ball on the issue. They’re not the first country to do this and won’t be the last.
Singapore is currently on the “warm seat” said PM Lee. As the country coordinator for Asean-China dialogue relations, every party wants Singapore to side with it a bit more but it’s “not possible to side with everyone at the same time,” he added. So it is doing its best to be “an honest broker, dealing straight with all parties,” said PM Lee.
To be clear, Singapore’s relationship with China extends beyond the SCS issue. For one, its friendship with China has “lasted for decades” said PM Lee. Second, there are three major G to G projects: The Suzhou industrial park, Tianjin Eco-city, and more recently the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative (CCI) to support China’s Western Region Development Strategy. Third, Singapore engages with many different provinces and cities, exploring infrastructure issues, connectivity, financial services, urban planning and clean tech. Fourth, it is working with China on their “One Belt, One Road” strategy. Fifth, it’s participating in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) which was started by China.
An unstable and backward China “will cause Asia great trouble, as happened in 1950s and 60s,” said PM Lee. But China’s prosperity and stability is good for Singapore. So Singapore is “happy to see China grow strong and influential, in a constructive and peaceful way,” he added. In short, it’s in Singapore’s interest for business and collaboration between the two countries to flourish.
However, on the SCS issue, Singapore has to take a national point of view and its own stand lies in three important principles: rules-based international order, freedom of navigation, and Asean unity.
For a small country, upholding international law is “a vital issue” said PM Lee. Disputes are settled through international courts and arbitration. Sometimes, Singapore wins as was the case with Pedra Branca against Malaysia in 2008. Other times it loses, as was the case with the development charge issue in the points of agreement on railway land, against Malaysia as well in 2014. Both times, the two parties “accepted” the ruling and “moved on” said PM Lee.
Big powers like China however, may not comply with international rulings, working instead on the basis that might is right. But Singapore cannot afford to have the rules-based approach bypassed. If might is right, then small states like Singapore “have no chance of survival” said PM Lee.