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China Woos Singapore, Malaysia, Spain in Diplomatic Gambit
Upgrade of Singapore-China ties risks Washington’s ire, says analyst
By: Toh Han Shih
With the US hosting an almost-simultaneous Summit for Democracy in Washington, DC to seek to coalesce a coalition against China, the prime ministers of Singapore, Malaysia, and Spain instead paid court to Chinese President Xi Jinping, who admonished them to reject a US bloc against China. Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim came home from Beijing with RM170 billion (US$38.5 billion) of investment commitments, while Singapore-China ties were upgraded to a “high-quality” partnership, which may displease Washington.
“China’s preferred method is to use bilateral partnerships to undermine and weaken multilateral engagement,” Andre Wheeler, chief executive officer of Asia Pacific Connnex, an Australian consultancy, told Asia Sentinel. “This is very much the approach taught within the ‘Art of War’ (then ancient Chinese military treatise). Coupled with China’s intent to push the US out of Asia through a policy of ‘Asia for Asians,’ it will use the likes of ASEAN to install itself as the regional hegemon. It is a strategy that plays to the Art of War type philosophy of “divide and conquer” methods to achieve victory without having to engage in a hot war.”
On April 1, Singapore and China issued a joint statement that both nations agreed to form an “all-round high-quality future-oriented partnership.” Both countries hope to expand their free trade agreement “as soon as possible this year” which will increase market access between both nations, according to the statement. Both countries aim to strengthen cooperation in areas including trade and investment, green and digital economies as well as finance, the statement added.
The US will be watching the upgraded Singapore-China partnership “very closely,” particularly in technology, Wheeler warned. “Should it perceive that China has used Singapore as a back door to access this technology, thereby taking away a significant current strategic advantage that the US has over China, they will look to a form of sanctions. They will likely be selective but would inevitably result in Singapore being a less attractive US investment option as those companies lose access to the US market through blacklisting.”
Amid the US-China chip war, China hopes Singapore will help fill China’s shortfall in semiconductor technology, Wheeler explained, adding that there are “clear indications” that China sees its relationship with Singapore as achieving goals that may bring Singapore into confrontation with the US. Wheeler predicted, “This conflict may well take the form of sanctions and the denial of access to technology.”
In Beijing on April 1, Anwar announced Malaysia had secured the RM170 billion investment commitments, the highest such commitment from China to Malaysia. These investment commitments occurred through 19 memoranda of understanding (MOUs) in sectors like green technology, the digital economy, and infrastructure although pessimists warn that supplicants often return from China with such commitments, only to see a fraction materialize. When former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte went to Beijing in 2016 and said “It’s time to say goodbye to Washington,” he returned to Manila with US$24 billion in such investment commitments and a belief that he could work with Beijing on the latter’s claims over islets in the Philippine exclusive economic zone. Almost none of it materialized and Chinese fishing boats and Coast Guard ships continued to sail through Philippine waters with impunity, eventually driving Malacanang back into US arms.
Those cautionary concerns need particularly to be heeded as China’s wide-ranging plans for President Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) continue to falter in the face of global economic problems, with Laos, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan all facing enormous cost overruns and budget deficits incurred in construction. The BRI is China’s plan to connect economically with other countries through costly infrastructure projects like ports and railway.
Kyrgistan and Tajikistan, among other countries, also face debt problems. China has reported spending US$230 billion to bail out debt-strapped countries involved with the BRI since 2006. It is uncertain how much largesse it wants to continue to deliver.
China’s relationship with Singapore and Malaysia are very different, Oh Ei Sun, a principal adviser of the Pacific Research Center of Malaysia, told Asia Sentinel. Malaysia is very much looking forward to investment from China, while Singapore works with China in advanced technological and commercial frontiers, Oh explained.
Singapore for decades has played an adept and quiet role in supporting US military operations in the region that it is unlikely to abandon. The two countries in 2016 renewed a three-decade-old pact that grants US forces access to Singaporean naval and air bases through 2035. The US also maintains in Singapore comprehensive shore support services supporting military members from its four services, US civilian employees, family members and Singaporean nationals, plus visiting ships and aircraft.
At a press conference of the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Beijing on April 3, a reporter asked about Malaysia saying it was prepared to negotiate with China over a dispute in the South China Sea. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning replied China is “committed to handling disputes in an appropriate manner through communication and consultation.”
In an implicit attempt to distance the EU from the US, the leaders of Spain and China agreed that the “independent” development of China-EU relations is in the interest of China, Spain, the EU, and the international community, said Mao. “As Spain assumes the rotating presidency of the EU in the latter half of this year, our two sides will have close communication and coordination to deliver on the important agenda and promote more dialogue and cooperation between China and the EU.”
Many Singaporean netizens on social media and the Internet commented on the apparently inferior reception of Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong compared to Anwar and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, after their planes touched down at Beijing airport on March 30.
When Sanchez got off his plane, he was received with a guard of honor, but no honor guard awaited Lee and his wife Ho Ching, a Chinese state video shows. Lee and Ho Ching did not smile or wave as they descended the steps from their plane, the video shows. Like the Spanish Prime Minister, Anwar was met with a guard of honor as he got off his plane, as indicated by photographs in a report of Malaysiakini, a Malaysian online newspaper.
“As this is Anwar’s first visit to China as Prime Minister, and he repeatedly spoke highly of relationship with China, it is understandable that the Chinese laid it on thick to welcome him,” Oh commented.
Singapore and China have to keep working on their relationship, because it does not “just automatically stay fine,” Lee told the Straits Times, Singapore’s main newspaper, on April 2. Lee was being forthright in characterizing the “very complicated relationship” between a superpower, China, and an international financial center, Singapore, Oh said. “They apparently work hard to update their relationship.”
On March 31, Xi met Sanchez in Beijing. Both leaders exchanged views on the Ukraine war, said a Chinese Foreign Ministry statement. “Xi Jinping stressed that China’s position … is promoting peace talks and political settlement.”
In a swipe at the US, Xi told Sanchez that “the Cold War mentality and bloc confrontation should be abandoned, and so should extreme sanctions and pressure.”
Xi also urged Lee and Anwar not to get drawn into a US alliance against China when he met them on March 31.
Also aiming at the US, Xi told Lee that Asian countries should “firmly oppose bullying, decoupling or severing industrial and supply chains. No country should be allowed to deprive the people of Asia of their right to pursue a better and happier life.”
Xi told Anwar that China is ready to work with Malaysia to “resolutely resist the Cold War mentality and bloc confrontation.”
Summit for Democracy
Although Singapore and Malaysia are nominally democracies, neither of the prime ministers attended the Summit for Democracy hosted by the US from March 28 to 30.
“Their visits which coincided with the American-led Summit of Democracy should please China too,” Oh said.
Singapore, Malaysia, and all other Southeast Asian nations except the Philippines did not endorse the Declaration of the Summit for Democracy. The countries and jurisdictions which endorsed the Declaration included Spain, Taiwan, the Philippines, India, Japan, and South Korea. Some elements of the Declaration implicitly target China. For example, the governments which supported the Declaration agreed to work together to defend against transnational threats, including foreign information manipulation, foreign interference in elections, and transnational repression.
The governments which support the Declaration committed to promote accountability for violations of international law, particularly genocide, war crimes, the crime of aggression and crimes against humanity. The European Parliament had adopted a resolution that the Chinese government’s actions against Uighur Muslims in the northwest Chinese province of Xinjiang amounts to “crimes against humanity” and holds a “serious risk of genocide”. The US has accused the Chinese government of genocide in Xinjiang.
Toh Han Shih is chief analyst of Headland Intelligence, a Hong Kong risk consultancy.