The recent diplomatic dispute between Singapore’s ambassador to China and the Global Times newspaper is highly unusual in the history of China-Singapore relations.
It is not, however, an extraordinary event from the perspective of recent Chinese policy towards the South China Sea. Nor is it surprising given the overall direction of China’s foreign policy this year.
Understanding what’s at stake – and, in particular, getting right the signal Beijing is trying to send – will be crucial for the two countries to steer the relationship on a steady course and prevent it from further deterioration.
Singapore’s ambassador to Beijing Stanley Loh wants the Global Times, the Chinese government and people, and perhaps also the outside world watching how China treats a small power like Singapore, to appreciate the truth of the matter and refute the Global Times’ accusations.
Mr Stanley Loh, Singapore’s Ambassador to China. Credit Ministry of Foreign Affairs
His argument was that the Global Times report was false and unfounded because, contrary to its assertion, Singapore did not raise the South China Sea or the arbitration ruling at the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit. In his second letter, Ambassador Loh again emphasises the veracity of his accounts of the proceedings at the NAM summit.
In his response to Ambassador Loh’s first letter, Mr Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Global Times, does defend the accuracy of the report. But that passing defence stands in striking contrast to a substantive interpretation of Singapore’s position over the South China Sea – almost appearing as a stern lecture on how Singapore should behave itself.
Ambassador Loh, in his second letter, replies that the political points Mr Hu makes are not relevant to the issue of the veracity of the Global Times report. He is correct technically, but quite wrong politically.
If Singapore is unable to grasp what’s at stake in the dispute, it would bode ill for the Singapore-China relationship.
Whatever the Global Times’ initial motivation for running the story, it is beyond doubt that the gist of the report has the backing of the Chinese government. Thus, when responding to a question about the dispute, a spokesman from China’s foreign ministry declared unambiguously: “It is a clear fact that a very small number of countries insisted on playing up South China Sea-related contents in the NAM Final Document.”
On whether this incident is going to affect China-Singapore relations, this spokesman emphasises that the two countries should mutually understand and respect each other’s core interests and major concerns.
The spokesman avoided the question of whether Singapore raised the South China Sea or the tribunal ruling at the NAM summit – a factual question of fundamental importance to Ambassador Loh.
But this omission speaks volumes about China’s attitude. From Beijing’s perspective, what’s at stake in the dispute is not so much truth as a factual matter as political arguments based on convenience for venting China’s cumulative grievances against Singapore this year.
Ambassador Loh wants to address the dispute as a simple, verifiable factual issue. But for China, it’s politics from the start. Even if Singapore did not raise the South China Sea issue at the NAM summit, the mere fact of its activism on Asean’s behalf to update the South China Sea-related paragraph in the NAM Final Document is provocative enough for a pent-up outburst.
To put it bluntly, Beijing is not so much interested in getting the record straight as in sending a diplomatic signal that it wants Singapore to understand. The signal is essentially this: know your place and don’t mess with us in the South China Sea.
The Chinese media’s treatment of facts may be cavalier, but the perception that Singapore is siding with the United States, the Philippines and Vietnam in opposing China, and thus overreacting in the South China Sea is now widespread inside China.
From two Singapore senior diplomats’ accusation of China’s attempts to split Asean in April, to the failure of its foreign minister to appear at a joint press conference with the Chinese foreign minister at the special China-Asean foreign ministers’ meeting in June, to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s description of the South China Sea arbitration ruling as “a strong statement” in August, Singapore appears to keep provoking China – or at least that is the viewpoint of some in Chinese quarters.
In this kind of political environment, the argument that Singapore is only adopting a principled position lacks credibility to those who think Singapore is taking sides. Many Chinese policy elites now agree that Singapore has already chosen its side over the South China Sea issue – against China – and that it must pay a price for damaging China’s interests.
It is thus not surprising that Beijing is now beginning to apply a sort of coercive diplomacy to pressure and even punish Singapore into acquiescing with China’s position. The NAM incident is the culmination of the deterioration of China-Singapore relations this year, but it is only the beginning of a new Chinese approach of coercive diplomacy towards Singapore.
The Chinese may think that this approach may compel Singapore to succumb, but it might well backfire by driving it further towards the US. Regardless, Beijing wants Singapore – and perhaps other regional countries as well – to understand that the rise of China has reduced these countries’ manoeuvring space between China and the US.
The underlying signal is that it is now time to come to terms with the reality of Chinese power and accommodate its interests or otherwise face consequences.
The Global Times’ report, regardless of its veracity, is nothing less than an explicit warning and bashing of Singapore’s activism on the South China Sea issue. For Singapore, that must be an essential takeaway from this incident, however it disagrees with the Chinese approach.
- Dr Feng Zhang, a Chinese national, is a fellow in the Australian National University’s department of international relations and an adjunct professor at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in China.