Photo of Zhao Le Ji and Lee Hsien Loong from PMO

Following a day after an open criticism by China’s senior diplomat at a high level forum, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is trying to salvage the deteriorating diplomatic relations with the Chinese superpower. Yesterday (May 16), the Singapore’s Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) issued a press statement saying China “affirmed the strong and substantial relationship” at a meeting between Lee Hsien Loong and a Chinese Communist Party member with no government portfolio, Zhao Le Ji. Despite the PMO’s trumpeting in local Singapore state-controlled mainstream media, the meeting went ignored in China with no China media carrying the news.

In addition, the PM also sent out Minister of National Development Lawrence Wong and Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean to follow up in his courtship. Minister Lawrence Wong however may have unwittingly worsen matter further when he said China should consult Singapore to advise on “infrastructural and urban planning”, suggesting that China has no such expertise:

“Singapore could play a useful role as a financing centre given the tremendous need for the financing of projects related to the Belt and Road scheme. As many of the countries along the Belt and Road were going through rapid urbanisation, Singapore could play a useful role in infrastructure and urban planning. If not done properly, it can be very expensive, because you end up doing things duplicated or you put in wasteful investments that may not yield results, or you may have to do again. So it can be quite a complex process and the countries understand this.”

Minister Teo Chee Hean played the sentimental card and paid a lips service tribute to the recent demise of China’s former vice-premier Qian Qi Chen saying:

“His legacy will be fondly remembered by Singaporeans.”

China, again, ignored the moves and gave no indication of improving ties with Singapore.

China’s relationship with Singapore took a turn for the worst last year (2016) when PM Lee Hsien Loong told China to give up their territorial claims in the South China Sea. The most expensive Prime Minister also tried to get other ASEAN countries to take a stand against China on the sea dispute, and even provoked China saying they are no “middle kingdom”. To worsen things further, the Singapore government allowed the US military to use its naval base in Singapore to spy on China’s movements in the South China Sea. In Nov 2016, China responded by detaining 11 of Singapore’s armored vehicles in Hong Kong and returned them some two months after.

The actual status of the diplomacy between the two countries remained rock bottom, as China deliberately left out an invitation to Lee Hsien Loong for the One Belt and Road forum held in Beijing. In China’s master plan, Malaysia was instead chosen as the preferred working partner for South East Asia’s economic development.

Unlike his father’s insistence on neutrality and policy of non-intervention, Singapore under PM Lee Hsien Loong’s administration has been actively taking biased positions, mostly siding with the US. The son of Lee Kuan Yew was given a rude awakening when Donald Trump became the US President and scrapped the Trans-Pacific Pact (TPP). The recent US economic recovery has also not given Singapore a ride, resulting in the Singapore PM having to turn to China instead. However, the result was lacklustre as none of China’s demands – especially the one of stopping bilateral military exercises with Taiwan – from Singapore could be met.