S’pore has to be consistent, credible and principled in navigating China-US rivalry: DPM Lawrence Wong

Singapore, he added, is a friend to both China and America, “and we want to stay friends with both sides”.

Tan Dawn Wei

Tan Dawn Wei

The Straits Times


DPM Lawrence Wong said Singapore cannot prescribe policy to the US or China, but what it aims to do is to remain friends with both as far as possible. PHOTO: MCI

May 18, 2023

BEIJING – It would realistically be difficult for the relationship between the United States and China to return to what it was. And the best way for Singapore to navigate this new era of great-power rivalry is to continue to act in a credible and principled manner in line with its national interests, said Singapore Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong.

This way, all external parties will come to know what Singapore stands for, and see it as a reliable and trusted partner.

Singapore, he added, is a friend to both China and America, “and we want to stay friends with both sides”.

Wrapping up his five-day visit to China – his first as deputy prime minister – Mr Wong was asked by the Singapore media about the increasing decoupling of the two major powers.

Observers have noted that this is happening not just at the government level, but is also affecting people-to-people relationships such as among students, academics and journalists, resulting in a broadening of mutual distrust.

On what scope, if any, there is for Singapore to help bridge the gap, Mr Wong said: “We have to be realistic what we can or cannot do. We cannot prescribe policy for the US and China, we cannot tell either country what to do.

“But what we aim to do is to stay friends with both as far as possible. And if either party wants to seek our views, we will be very happy to share with them our perspectives candidly and objectively.”

He added: “What’s more important, I think for Singapore, is that we continue to act in a way that is consistent, credible, principled and in accordance with our own national interest.

“And if we continue to do that, all our friends or external parties everywhere will eventually over time… come to know what Singapore stands for, what we represent, and they will see Singapore as a reliable and trusted partner.

“And I think that’s the best way for us to navigate this new era of great power rivalry.”

He expressed the hope that both major powers will develop a new basis for their bilateral ties with at least some guard rails to prevent misunderstanding, manage differences and avoid conflict. To do that, they need to have open lines of communication.

He noted that that process of dialogue had started when China’s top diplomat Wang Yi and the US’ National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan met in Vienna, Austria, last week, for what they described as candid and constructive discussions.

These were the first high-level talks since relations hit a low after a suspected Chinese spy balloon was shot down by the US.

Said Mr Wong on Wednesday: “And we hope it will continue across many fronts so that both the US and China will be able to find ways to work out their differences and coexist with one another, and gradually rebuild the trust that is necessary for both to manage their differences and, at the same time, find areas of common ground where they can cooperate.”

He said the topic of US-China rivalry had come up during his discussions with Chinese leaders on the trip, and “I believe both sides do not want a confrontation”.

Mr Wong’s visit, his first to China after he was identified as Singapore’s next prime minister a year ago, has been couched by both sides as being instrumental in building rapport between Singapore’s fourth-generation leadership and China’s new leaders in particular.

His last visit was in 2018 when he accompanied Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong as national development minister. This time, he led a delegation of his fourth-generation colleagues: National Development Minister Desmond Lee, Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and National Development Sim Ann, Senior Minister of State for Manpower and Defence Zaqy Mohamad, and Minister of State for Trade and Industry and Culture, Community and Youth Low Yen Ling.

On how the 4G leaders will shepherd Singapore’s relationship with China, Mr Wong, who takes over as the leader in charge of cooperation with China, said: “We value greatly the ties that we have with China, and it is a relationship that has been built on mutual trust developed over generations.”

This trust has enabled Singapore to develop a wide range of cooperation projects with China, “which is really quite amazing if you think about it, because we are such a tiny country”.

Singapore has managed to design projects that match China’s requirements at different points in time, such as the Suzhou Industrial Park in 1994, the sustainability-focused Tianjin Eco-City in 2008, and the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative in 2015, which plugs into China’s infrastructural master plan, the Belt and Road Initiative.

“I think if we can continue to maintain this high level of trust, then we will be able to take our relationship forward and realise our goals of an upgraded partnership, one that’s high-quality and future-oriented,” said Mr Wong, whose visit took him to Shanghai and Beijing.

The two countries elevated their bilateral ties during a visit by PM Lee in March, when he held talks with President Xi Jinping and new Premier Li Qiang.

During his visit, Mr Wong also met Mr Li, as well as Executive Vice-Premier Ding Xuexiang. Both Mr Li and Mr Ding were promoted last October to the seven-man Politburo Standing Committee, the pinnacle of power in China.

With leadership transitions on both sides, Mr Wong and Mr Ding will take over the steering of Singapore-China collaboration as the new co-chairs of the Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation (JCBC), succeeding Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat and former executive vice-premier Han Zheng.

On Tuesday, they discussed existing and new areas of cooperation, and will meet again later in 2023 when China hosts the next round of JCBC talks.

Asked for his impressions of China’s new leadership team, Mr Wong said he has always been impressed by the quality of the country’s leaders.

“But what is always striking when I visit China, and when I talk to the Chinese leaders, including this time, is their focus on domestic issues. Very often, even when someone new comes into the job, they master the issues very quickly,” he said.

He also discussed with the Chinese leaders he met the issue of restoring flights between the two countries to pre-pandemic levels and reinstating a 15-day visa-free policy for Singapore travellers, which had been suspended as part of China’s Covid-19 measures.

“But beyond that, there have been suggestions also for further mutual visa arrangements between China and Singapore. And so on that part, we are happy to receive any proposals from China. We will study them and we will have our officials discuss further,” he said, without elaborating on what these arrangements might be.

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