George Yeo: S'pore's 'Chinese-ness' promotes strong ties with China, but must set itself apart politically

Singapore has to separate its "Chinese-ness" from its political identity as it cannot afford to be seen by ASEAN as a Chinese state in Southeast Asia.

Mothership | October 30, 2020, 05:47 PM

George Yeo was Singapore’s Foreign Minister from 2004 to 2011. He is currently the Senior Advisor to Kuok Group and Kerry Logistics Network. 

In his commentary, written to commemorate 30 years of diplomatic relations between Singapore and China, Yeo opined that while Singapore's "Chinese-ness" helped build strong bilateral relations with China, the country has to set itself apart politically. 

  • Singapore's "Chinese-ness" appealed to China, and the country provided inspiration to China's late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping when China was starting on its policy of reform and opening up.
  • As an independent, sovereign, multiracial country within Southeast Asia, it is essential for Singapore to distinguish itself politically from China.
  • Lee Kuan Yew made it a matter of principle that Singapore would establish diplomatic relations with China only after Singapore's neighbours have done so.
  • Singapore's formal diplomatic relations with China and unofficial ties with Taiwan helped promote cross-Straits relations.
  • Singapore played a role in China's global integration, and will help in China's external financial economy.

This commentary was first published on ThinkChina on Wednesday, Oct. 28.

Lee Kuan Yew a big contributor to China's growth

In 2018, China celebrated the 40th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping’s new policy of reform and opening-up. In those 40 years, China’s economy grew over 80 times in USD, over 200 times in RMB and about 90 times in PPP.

Although the bulk of the effort was made by the Chinese people themselves, China also benefited from foreign assistance.

Among the ten foreigners who were recognised as having made signal contribution to China’s astonishing transformation during this period was Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew.

The process of selecting these ten individuals in Beijing must have been elaborate and contentious. A large pool of candidates would have been carefully considered.

The selection having been made and announced to the world, the list is forever recorded in Chinese history.

Singapore has ties with both China and Taiwan

This year, we celebrate the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Singapore and China.

Diplomatic relations were a necessary formality. Lee Kuan Yew had told Taiwan President Chiang Ching-kuo much earlier that when that day came, Singapore’s one-China policy required the state symbols of the Republic of China in Singapore to be taken down.

Significantly, Beijing noted without objection the use of training facilities in Taiwan by the Singapore Armed Forces.

Indeed, Singapore’s special relationship with Taiwan made possible the talks between Wang Daohan and Koo Chen-fu in 1993 and those between Xi Jinping and Ma Ying-jeou in 2015, both critical milestones in cross-Straits relations.

Singapore's 'Chinese-ness' appeals to China

Singapore’s unusual role in the drama of China’s great revival has its origin in the history of China’s interaction with Southeast Asia over the centuries.

It is Singapore’s ‘Chinese-ness’ as an independent sovereign country (and not only as a trading post like Penang) which makes Singapore of especial interest to China.

Singapore’s success as a young country caught the eye of Deng Xiaoping when he steered China in a new direction in 1978.

During his visit to Singapore in November that year, Lee Kuan Yew remarked that if Singapore with a population three quarters Chinese, many of whom descendants of coolies, could achieve a certain level of development, how much more could China with its long history and vast talent.

(Image via Ministry of Communications and Information)

In 1985, China’s State Council appointed Goh Keng Swee as an economic adviser on coastal development and tourism.

Singapore was an inspiration to Deng. On his famous southern tour of 1992, Deng remarked that in social management, China should try to overtake Singapore.

Like Dazhai for agriculture and Daqing for industry, Singapore quickly became a pilgrimage destination for reform and opening-up.

That year, scores of Chinese delegations visited Singapore. It was an honour for Singapore but many agencies were overburdened.

Lee Kuan Yew then proposed to Chinese leaders for the two countries to work together on a joint project which China could benefit from. Chinese officials could abstract from Singapore’s positive and negative developmental experiences, and Singapore officials would be able to understand China’s conditions more deeply.

That was the spark which ignited Suzhou Industrial Park, Tianjin Eco-City, China-Singapore (Chongqing) Connectivity Initiative and a number of other projects.

Singapore contributed to China's Internet controls

During the 90s, Singapore was an essential case study in China for economic development, social management and urban planning.

Lee Kuan Yew directed that special courses be developed for Chinese officials in Singapore universities. Their alumni now number in the thousands, some among whom currently hold high positions.

Not long after Deng’s famous remarks, Vice Minister of Propaganda Xu Weicheng led a delegation to study Singapore for ten days following which he wrote a short primer on this curious predominantly-Chinese city-state. It became a classic of how China viewed Singapore at that time.

In 1995, Ding Guangen, Politburo Member responsible for all aspects of public communication and an old intimate of Deng Xiaoping, spent over a week in Singapore with a high level ministerial delegation.

As Minister for Information and the Arts, I was their host. They worked mornings, afternoons and evenings, taking no time off for shopping or sightseeing.

Every aspect of public communication in Singapore was studied in detail - bookshops, cinema halls, public libraries, museums, radio, television and the Internet which was then in its infancy.

They called on Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Chok Tong and others. They quizzed me on the control of the Internet and its effects on society. I replied that the Internet could always be selectively controlled, explaining how, as a matter of principle, we blocked a hundred sites (principally porn and hate sites) through internet providers.

It was only some months later that I understood the purpose and the reason for the seriousness of Ding Guangen’s visit. It was to make final checks before China issued its national policy on the Internet.

Imagine if, instead of opening up a parallel cyber-universe, China had out of fear of the new media blocked its development, where would China be today? Without Alibaba, Baidu, Tencent and Bytedance which even the United States is wary of today?

It was a farsighted approach although not one without risk.

Internally, there must have been a furious debate about loss of control to external influence and manipulation. The study of little Singapore gave some assurance.

Thus, at a critical juncture in China’s explosive new trajectory, Singapore made a modest contribution.

Some months later, on an official visit to China I was surprised to receive an invitation from Ding Guanggen for a private dinner at Zhongnanhai. It was his way to thank Singapore.

Singapore's role in facilitating China's global integration

Across a broad front, Singapore supported China’s reform and opening up which was almost derailed by the Tiananmen Incident.

During the crackdown in June 1989, the Singapore Government issued a statement expressing not only sorrow but also hope for the future.

I had just joined the Cabinet and saw senior minsters leaving early after lunch for a special meeting with Lee Kuan Yew to discuss Singapore’s statement.

In 1990, formal diplomatic relations were established. Understanding Deng Xiaoping’s determination to put China firmly back on track, Singapore supported China’s early joining of APEC.

I remember vividly the first meeting China participated in Bangkok. At an informal lunch, China’s Li Lanqing, Taiwan’s Vincent Siew, Hong Kong’s Brian Chau and myself spontaneously decided after collecting our food from the buffet line to sit together on the same table. I felt like a relative invited to join a family lunch.

China’s membership of APEC (which necessitated a careful agreement on the terms of Taiwan’s and Hongkong’s inclusion) could not have come about without the leadership of U.S. President George Bush Senior.

At his meeting with Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore in January 1992, Bush asked Lee to convey to China’s President Yang Shangkun who was visiting Singapore a few days later his wish for improved relations with China.

At his meeting with Yang, Lee also encouraged China to join GATT (later WTO) as quickly as possible. It was my privilege to be Lee’s notetaker for both meetings.

The return of Hong Kong to China on July 1, 1997 was celebrated with joy in Singapore.

I was in Hong Kong with Lee Kuan Yew at a moment in history which was deeply emotional for ethnic Chinese around the world.

I was somewhat surprised to see Singapore’s English-language Straits Times carrying the headline “China ends 155 years of shame”.

Impact of the Asian Financial Crisis

Unfortunately, the Asian financial crisis followed soon after.

While Asian economies were toppling one after another, China pump-primed its economy and kept the renminbi steady. At the turn of the Millenium, China’s economy streaked ahead of ASEAN’s.

When Premier Zhu Rongji offered an FTA with ASEAN at the Leaders’ Summit in November 2000, ASEAN leaders did not know how to respond because China was increasingly seen as an economic competitor.

Singapore played a leading role in securing ASEAN’s positive response to Zhu by insisting on an early harvest package for the other nine ASEAN countries.

We saw a historic opportunity for regional stability in China’s gesture of friendship and seized it.

When the Framework Agreement was signed in Phnom Penh in 2002, Zhu made two remarks: one, that if the FTA resulted in an unfavourable balance to ASEAN after 10 years, it should be renegotiated; second, that China would never seek for itself an exclusive position in ASEAN.

Within our diplomatic capabilities, Singapore lobbied for China’s early accession to the WTO which finally took place in Doha in November 2001.

The negotiations were tough with the U.S., EU and Japan coordinating their demands. Feeling the pressure, China’s trade negotiators requested Singapore not to add to their burden.

Since Singapore’s needs were more than adequately covered by the major powers, I, as Minster for Trade and Industry, agreed immediately to give China a free pass.

A few years later, Singapore, together with New Zealand, Chile and Brunei launched the Trans Pacific Partnership.

I encouraged China to become a member too. China Commerce Minister Shi Guangshen demurred, explaining that China had already paid too heavy a price for entry to the WTO and could not afford more concessions. Indeed no other developing country joined the WTO on tougher terms.

Singapore played a role in cross-Straits relations

In 2008, Singapore and China negotiated an FTA which went beyond the ASEAN-China FTA.

About 2011, China encouraged Singapore to negotiate a free trade agreement with Taiwan while objecting to other countries doing the same.

In 2013, Singapore and Taiwan signed a free trade agreement with Taiwan carefully named ASTEP (Agreement between Singapore and the Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen and Matsu on Economic Partnership).

This was extraordinary and attested to a deep trust by China that Singapore’s relationship with Taiwan would help and not hinder eventual reunification.

That trust enabled Singapore to provide the venue for Xi Jinping’s unprecedented meeting with Ma Ying-jeou as an equal.

That equality extended to the equal sharing of the bill for dinner at Shangri-La Hotel. Xi brought Guizhou Moutai, Ma brought Kinmen Kaoliang, both powerful spirits.

Singapore could only play this unique role because of its ‘Chinese-ness’.

Just before he became Foreign Minister (and without foreknowledge of his promotion) in April 2007, I hosted Yang Jiechi as a Distinguished Visitor.

Over dinner, he spoke of the ‘mutual affection between our two peoples’.

I was touched. It was a sentiment I shared but could not have expressed. Singapore’s Chinese-ness is part of our DNA, entangling Singapore with China in a way which causes complexities both domestically and in our foreign policy.

Image via China's Foreign Affairs Ministry

Singapore cannot afford to be seen by ASEAN as a "Chinese state"

Singapore’s Chinese-ness was a key reason for our separation from Malaysia.

But affirming our multiracialism was fundamental to the establishment of Singapore as an independent sovereign country. The challenge of race, language and religion is never fully overcome.

That is why we have to make the pledge every day. From time to time, there are heated debates over culture, education, immigration and other related issues.

The key in all cases is balance. We must never take our eye off this ball. If we do, we lose our balance which will have serious consequences.

With the growing importance of China to Singapore, we have to trim our position all the time.

One foreign ambassador asked me why it was necessary in Singapore to have both a China Cultural Centre and a Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre.

I replied that it was absolutely necessary to separate the two or else there will be confusion. I suspect that he was testing me.

Singapore can never afford to have other countries in ASEAN see us a Chinese state in Southeast Asia.

Lee Kuan Yew made it a matter of principle that Singapore would establish diplomatic relations with China only after our neighbours have done so.

For many years, Singapore together with other non-Communist ASEAN countries worked with China to counter Vietnam’s expansion into Cambodia.

After Vietnam withdrew its forces from Cambodia, it sought ASEAN membership and invited Lee Kuan Yew to be an adviser.

However, there was lingering suspicion of Singapore’s relationship with China which took some years to dissipate.

I knew the suspicion had largely evaporated when, one day in 2002, while reporting to Vietnam Premier Pham Van Khai on the work of our bilateral economic commission, he started giving me homework.

Yet, it is not possible (nor is it desirable) for others not to see us majority cultural Chinese in our make-up.

This is not a matter of presentation but of fact which we should wear naturally.

When Francis became Pope in March 2013, he established a commission of eight Catholics to recommend reform of the Vatican’s administrative and financial system. For two years I did not know why I was asked to be a member. It was a surprise because I had neither been active in my parish nor diocese.

Only later did I find out that the Holy Father had asked for a Chinese Catholic to be included (all the others being European) and I was that Chinese. Someone had told a Cardinal who was putting the Commission together that I had left government and become available.

Separating Singapore's "Chinese-ness" from its political identity

However, it is paramount for Singapore’s Chinese-ness to be distinguished from our political identity as an independent, sovereign, multiracial country.

In 2013, the Philippines took China to UNCLOS over South China Sea claims. The Philippines invoked compulsory arbitration. As China had opted out of compulsory arbitration (like many big countries) when it acceded to the treaty, it refused to participate.

The Tribunal (which included two judges appointed on China’s behalf since China refused to appoint any) decided that China could not exclude itself and went on to construct China’s case on China’s behalf without its participation.

Not unexpectedly, the Tribunal ruled against China.

Had ASEAN been asked beforehand, it would never have agreed to the Philippine taking China to compulsory arbitration. But the Philippines did not need ASEAN’s permission and had every sovereign right to act on its own.

Singapore was put in a difficult position because many years before, Singapore had played a leading role in establishing UNCLOS and felt a certain obligation to defend its judicial process when the Tribunal made its finding against China.

As a small country, Singapore is very reliant on multilateral institutions for its political and economic well-being.

Singapore’s relationship with China was affected for a couple of years but has since recovered. At that time, many Mainland Chinese were unhappy that Chinese Singapore did not take China’s side.

China does not seek to replace the U.S.

In ten years, China’s nominal GDP may overtake that of the U.S. Short of nuclear war, there is little doubt that China’s importance to Singapore and ASEAN will continue to grow.

But we have to be watchful of the worsening relations between China and the U.S. which affects the entire world.

U.S. antagonism towards China’s rise will not abate for years to come. It stems from frustration with its own internal contradictions and heightening concern that China will displace it as the pre-eminent power in the world.

China does seek greater influence in the world but it does not seek to displace the U.S. as top dog.

Except for a short period during the Cultural Revolution, China has never been a missionary power; it sees its civilisation and culture as unique to itself; unlike the West, it does not proclaim its values to be universal.

What China wants is a multipolar world with itself as one of the major poles.

It knows that it may be years, even decades, before the U.S. accepts a multipolar reality. China’s response to the US is predictable: to be firm but do not escalate.

China’s dual circulation economy plan elaborates this strategy. The internal circulation economy is to ensure that the Chinese economy will continue to thrive regardless of external disruption.

China gearing up for protracted tensions with the U.S.

China fully expects the U.S. to put pressure on China from every direction over an extended period of time.

Psychologically, Beijing is preparing the Chinese people for ‘protracted warfare’.

China already has the world’s most vertically integrated economy. It is working furiously to overcome critical deficiencies like nanochip technology.

There is quiet confidence that its internal market is big enough to sustain continued growth. China already has a bigger retail market than the U.S.

Although the external circulation economy will still be given high emphasis, and remains a critical stimulus for domestic progress, China expects that different parts of it to be disrupted at different times by the U.S. with varying success.

Among the Five Eyes countries, there is tighter and more public coordination. The U.S. is stepping up pressure on Europe, India and Japan to support its moves against China.

They will go along sometimes, but not every time, and certainly not on all issues.

With a secure internal circulation economy, China’s domestic policy will be less hostage to U.S. interference and its foreign policy will have more room for manoeuvre.

The dual circulation economy is not novel.

Dynastic China always depended more on internal circulation than on external circulation. When Lord McCartney presented gifts from King George III to the Qianlong Emperor in 1793, the Emperor’s reply was curt: that there was nothing China was not capable of producing for itself.

This arrogance became China’s undoing and it could not withstand the western onslaught in the subsequent decades.

Internalising this lesson, China is very careful to underline that it will continue to open up to the world under the dual circulation strategy.

The Belt and Road Initiative is integral to the external circulation economy and, despite opposition from the U.S. and a few other countries, remains vital for the development of critical infrastructure in Asia and Africa.

The details of this dual circulation strategy -- increasingly presented as an imperative -- are currently being elaborated in the 14th Five-Year Plan (2021-2045) which is being drawn up.

The key idea is strategic robustness which enables China to have greater exposure to the global economy.

A strong international circulation will make China less vulnerable to U.S. stranglehold of critical technology and its weaponisation of the international financial system.

Recently, Henry Kissinger warned that U.S. and China leaders “have to discuss the limits beyond which they will not push threats.” Otherwise, “we will slide into a situation similar to World War I".

The U.S. should “think of an economic world in which no other country should be able to blackmail us, but where that objective is not designed in such a way that all potential technological capabilities in other countries have to be confronted and reduced”.

China’s dual-circulation strategy is intended to help bring about this outcome. The stark reality is that U.S.-China relations in the coming years will determine the fate of humanity in the 21st century.

Much will depend on the U.S. recovering its strength and self-confidence.

American society has never seen such division since the Civil War.

Under President Trump, U.S. foreign policy has put America first in a brutal way including restricting access to universities which are the best in the world.

The U.S. can only be “a benign superpower”, a term frequently used by Lee Kuan Yew, if it is internally united and vital.

The Covid-19 pandemic has been a testing period. This year, the U.S. economy may slide back 4% while China’s surges 3% forward.

ASEAN a "peacemaker" for the U.S. and China

The future of Singapore and ASEAN is bound up with the titanic contest between U.S. and China.

Peace and development in ASEAN require us to balance the big forces at play around us, and in a dynamic not static way. Sometimes, we have to lean one way, at other times, in the opposite direction.

Our objective is always to be a peacemaker.

Singapore’s relations with China can only continue to blossom if ASEAN, as a whole, is stable and neutral.

China is already ASEAN’s most important trading partner and will become more so in the future. It is in ASEAN’s interest to welcome the presence of other partners as well especially the U.S.

We welcome everyone’s friendship provided no one insists on an exclusive friendship, which was Premier Zhu’s wise insight into the psychology of Southeast Asia. A friendly, unthreatening ASEAN open to all the major powers is good for China.

The only issue which can undermine ASEAN-China relations is the South China Sea.

Once the Code of Conduct is signed, minds can turn to win-win cooperation and joint development of mineral and maritime resources.

For example, Hainan Island, which is already a special economic zone and a separate customs region, can be brought into a closer relationship with ASEAN. By so doing, the South China Sea becomes (again) a peaceful waterway connecting China and Southeast Asia and one open to all countries in the world.

For much of maritime Asian history, China and Southeast Asia enjoyed close relations without significant conflicts, with the trade winds bringing people, goods and ideas, now one way, now the other.

ASEAN will play a modest but significant role in China’s internal circulation economy and a major role in China’s external circulation economy.

Clarity on how Singapore relates to China will bring about longstanding ties

Singapore, which is the creation of the 19th century China trade, will play an essential role in China’s external circulation economy.

Not surprisingly, as it is very much in our own interest, Singapore has been a strong supporter of the Belt and Road Initiative.

As the renminbi becomes a major currency for international trade, Singapore’s role in China’s external financial circulation will assume greater significance. Hong Kong’s role has been somewhat diminished by Beijing’s new national security law and London’s by increasing pressure from Washington to act against China.

Although Singapore’s relationship with China has a long history, it is right that we mark the establishment of diplomatic relations thirty years ago as a landmark event.

It marked in stone two important features: one, that we are politically separate from China and, two, that we share a natural affinity borne of history and culture.

Clarity of these two features will ensure that the relationship between Singapore and China will continue to flourish amidst geopolitical and geo-economic shifts, for our mutual benefit and that of the region.

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