What is behind Lee Hsien Loong’s sudden visit to China?

By Lan Shunzheng

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong paid an official visit to China on Sept. 19.
According to Singapore media, Lee’s visit to China is not only significant, but its timing merits careful attention. He had previously declared that he would visit the United States in October to hold talks with U.S. President Donald Trump in the White House. What is the significance of this sudden visit to China before his visit to U.S?
Although Singapore it is a country with 76% of its population being ethnic Chinese, it has not always kept a close relationship with China. However, China is the largest trading partner of Singapore, and Singapore is China’s largest trading partner and largest FDI source in ASEAN. Good and stable bilateral relationship will be essential for Singapore, and also important for China.

US or China? A shifting trend in Singapore

In the past Singapore has tended to take sides against China.
It has long-term military cooperation agreements (such as Operation Starlight) with China’s Taiwan. It generally tries to maintain a strategic balance between China and the U.S., but it will support the U.S. if this cannot be achieved.
As Singapore lies between Indonesia and Malaysia, its security is very fragile and thus it relies very much on the U.S. for protection. As America’s strongest ally among the ASEAN countries, Singapore has always sided with the U.S. on the South China Sea issue. Before and after the South China Sea arbitration case, alongside the Philippines, Singapore was the most active of the ASEAN countries in supporting the arbitration. In addition, Singapore also opened its military base to America’s anti-submarine reconnaissance aircraft when they were performing sorties over the South China Sea.
Its strategy in the region – “support America to contain China” – is obvious.
With China’s adherence and successful diplomatic efforts with ASEAN countries, China and ASEAN agreed on May 18, 2017 upon a framework for the code of conduct the South China Sea, all the ASEAN countries are now attaching more importance to their relationships with China, and most countries have advocated carefully managing relations with China and the United States. One of the best examples is the Philippines. The President Duterte, after taking office, changed immediately his predecessor’s policy on China and on the South China Sea. At this backdrop, the Singapore government is adopting a more cooperative attitude towards China.
At present, China is Singapore’s largest trading partner. Singapore now has two main areas of economic activity: first, it is an important international financial center and shipping center on the Malacca Strait – and everyday 80% of the ships passing through the Malacca Strait are Chinese cargo ships; second, it invests in building industrial parks in China and obtains significant benefits through China’s preferential policies.
These two sectors have contributed significantly to created Singapore’s development miracle, which means Singapore’s economic growth depends heavily on China.
Malaysia and Singapore have agreed to build a 360-km high-speed rail link between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, which is expected to start operation by December 2026 and cut travel time to about 90 minutes.
Singapore welcomes Chinese businesses to the project, Lee said during his meeting in China. Both sides will work towards progress in negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and upgrading the bilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA).

Big Changes in China

On Sept. 3, a Singapore website “Lianhe Zaobao” published an article – The Emotional Connection with China’s Rise – written by journalist Huang Weiman. The article said that Singaporeans have always had complicated attitudes to China: some think that China has advanced science and technology but a backward civilization; others believe that China’s prospects are still uncertain although they recognize the inevitability of China’s rise. The Singaporeans are changing their past prejudice towards China as a “backward” country.
On Aug. 20, at the Singapore National Day Rally, Lee Hsien Loong spoke of Singapore’s goal of building a “Smart Nation”. To illustrate his point, he told a story about how Lim Swee Say, Singapore’s Minister of Manpower, was left feeling like a “suaku” (country bumpkin) on a visit to Shanghai.
During the visit, he stopped to buy some chestnuts at a roadside stall. Lim saw customers ahead of him in the queue waving their mobile phones and taking their chestnuts without paying any cash. He thought this was some kind of special promotion, and generously told the hawker that he didn’t need any special offer, and would happily pay the full price in cash. The hawker directed Lim to his QR code, and told him the customers waving their mobile phones were using WeChat Pay. Lim was left feeling very embarrassed.
Although this is only an anecdote, it very neatly highlights the kind of enormous change that has taken place in China.

Growing Influence on Security

China also has a growing influence on Singapore’s security.
Since Singapore gained independence from Malaysia, tension between the two countries has continued. One of the most severe problems involves the supply of fresh water.
Singapore has long been heavily dependent on Malaysia for its fresh water. On this issue, disputes have often occurred between the two countries. In 1961 and 1962, the countries signed two contracts under which Malaysia agreed to supply Singapore with raw water from Johore. One of the contracts was due to expire in 2011, the other in 2061. The problem lies in the price. Originally it was agreed that Johore would sell raw water to Singapore at 3 ringgit per thousand gallons and would repurchase purified water at 50 ringgit per thousand gallons. However Malaysia began to feel that the price was too low, and that Singapore was reaping all the benefits, and thus began to argue for a repricing.
But the two sides have been unable to reach any agreement. A senior officer of the Malaysian army has even said that there could be military conflict between Malaysia and Singapore if the water supply problem cannot be resolved satisfactorily.
For Singapore, both the water supply problem and potential military conflict are issues of national security, and so it has maintained a watchful eye on its neighbor.
China has recently been involved in a series of join defense initiatives with Malaysia. According to a report by the Russian media Sputnik on Aug. 23, China will supply reconnaissance aircraft to Malaysia, and will help Malaysia to modernize its Navy. Defense cooperation will be a key element in strengthening cooperation between China and Malaysia.
Russian military expert Vasily Kashin believes that China is increasing its investment in Malaysia, and is likely to expand its military and technology cooperation with Malaysia.
As the “Created in China” brand expands its reach in the Malaysian military, China’s influence over Malaysia will expand accordingly, and Singapore will have to pay greater attention to its relationship with China.