China forgives and invites PM Lee to attend its “Belt and Road” Forum

China held its first high-profile “Belt and Road” Forum in May 2017. Some 29 heads of state as well as representatives of 28 other countries were invited to attend the forum. The “Belt and Road” initiative is China’s attempt to revive ancient Silk Road trade routes and build infrastructure across the region.

However, conspicuously, PM Lee was missing among the 29 heads of state. He was not invited by China to attend the forum at the time, despite the many good ties between Singapore and China nurtured by Singapore’s founding PM Lee Kuan Yew over the many years.

The Singapore delegation was led by minister Lawrence Wong. In an interview with the media, Wong revealed that the invitations were decided by China. It was the first official acknowledgement that PM Lee was not invited. In contrast, China invited Malaysia’s PM, Indonesia’s and Philippines’ Presidents. When Hong Kong media SCMP asked about the matter, PM Lee stayed silent. SCMP reported, “Lee’s office did not respond to (SCMP) This Week in Asia’s queries on the matter.”

Even heads of state of smaller nations with less-established diplomatic ties with Beijing, like Fiji, Chile, Greece and Hungary, were at the forum.

Foreign policy experts at the time noted that China’s snubbing of PM Lee could be due to the spats that had occurred between Singapore and China.

Spats between Singapore and China

On 2 Aug 2016, then US President Obama hosted a White House state dinner in honour of PM Lee. During his toast, PM Lee praised President Obama and his decision to “re-balance” Asia Pacific, saying that Obama’s decision “has won America new friends and strengthened old partnerships, including with Singapore”.

Two days later on 4 Aug, China immediately issued a response through their Chinese Communist Party controlled Global Times in an opinion piece. The Chinese cautioned PM Lee in its article.

“Lee Hsien Loong addressed Obama as the American ‘first Pacific President’. Such flattery given to Obama directly does not concern us,” the article said. “The key is he praised the American strategy to ‘re-balance Asia-Pacific’ and publicized that all Southeast Asian countries welcome such American ‘balancing’. Because the ‘re-balance Asia-Pacific’ strategy is pointed at China to a large extent, Lee Hsien Loong is clearly taking side already.”

“With regard to the difficult position Singapore is in, China, on one hand, may have to be broad-minded. Let us use big country way to resolve problems between China and US. And with regard to Singapore, this ‘little red dot’ which sometimes is forced to look up to US, we do not need to overly fuss about it,” it added.

“But on the other hand, our tolerance also should have a limit. Singapore should not push it. It cannot play the role of taking the initiative to help US and South East Asian countries to go against China over South China Sea matters. It cannot help American ‘re-balancing Asia-Pacific’ strategy, which is directed at China’s internal affairs, by ‘adding oil and vinegar’, thereby enabling US to provide an excuse to suppress China’s strategic space as well as providing support to US.”

“Singapore can go and please the Americans, but it needs to do their utmost to avoid harming China’s interests. It needs to be clear and open about its latter attitude,” it cautioned. Singapore’s balancing act should be to help China and US to avoid confrontation as its main objective, and not taking side so as to increase the mistrust between China and US, it added. Singapore clearly has failed to do this by a long shot, it said. The article gave the example of Singapore allowing US to deploy its P-8 reconnaissance aircraft to Singapore, which from the view of the Chinese, increases the tension in South China Sea. “Singapore needs more wisdom,” it concluded.

Then in Sep 2016 after a summit of the Non-Aligned Movement, China was visibly upset with Singapore’s deemed “interference” of its South China Sea disputes with other ASEAN countries. There was a public exchange of words between Stanley Loh, the Singaporean envoy in Beijing, and Global Times with regard to Singapore’s position on the South China Sea dispute at the summit. Singapore has no claims on any of the South China Sea islands in the dispute.

Thereafter, bilateral ties hit a low in Nov 2016 after Hong Kong customs seized 9 Singapore infantry carrier vehicles en route from exercises in Taiwan to Singapore, citing a breach of local laws on the shipment of strategic commodities. The vehicles were returned to Singapore two months later, however.

China angry with PM Lee even before he was PM

Xue Li, a senior research fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences think tank, said at the time that China’s decision not to invite the Singaporean leader reflected a growing belief in Beijing that Singapore sought only economic benefits from China, while “relying on the US for security”. He added, “China is gradually recognising this and therefore doesn’t really care if the Singapore PM attended or not.”

“What we can deduce is that China is laying its unhappiness over these issues with the Singaporean head of government, who happens to be Lee Hsien Loong,” said Chong Ja Ian, a Chinese foreign policy expert at NUS.

Singaporean officials, however, tried to shrug off talk of any diplomatic rift between Singapore and China.

The 2016 incidents weren’t the first that PM Lee angered China. In fact, even before he became the PM, he had already angered China.

Months before taking over as PM in August 2004, he triggered a furious reaction from China after he made a private visit to Taiwan and offered to mediate between the leaders of the self-governing island and Beijing, according to SCMP. China, which considers Taiwan a renegade province, portrayed the gesture as an interference in domestic affairs and temporarily suspended high-level diplomatic exchanges.

China forgives PM Lee

In any case, China seems to have forgiven PM Lee, probably after Singapore quickly entered a deal with China in Sep 2017 with regard to its “Belt and Road” initiative, 4 months after PM Lee was snubbed by China by not inviting him to the first “Belt and Road” Forum in May 2017.

Next week, China will play host to nearly 40 heads of state and government at its second “Belt and Road” Forum (25 to 27 Apr). It is expected to produce more deals for companies and banks involved in the Silk Road mega-project.

All 10 ASEAN leaders, including PM Lee this time, will take part in a high-level summit at Beijing’s National Convention Centre and a leaders’ roundtable at Yanqi Lake in the suburb of Huairou.

The other 27 leaders will include Russian President Vladimir Putin; Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz; Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras; Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban; Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan.

In addition, close to 5,000 participants from over 150 countries and 90 international organisations such as the United Nations, World Bank and International Monetary Fund will also be at the forum.

Based on figures released last week, the total trade volume between China and Belt and Road participating countries exceeded US$6 trillion (S$8.1 trillion) from 2013 to last year, while China has so far chalked up US$80 billion in direct foreign investment in these countries.

China also said it has inked 173 deals with 125 countries and 29 international organisations.

It’s a good thing that China is no longer angry with PM Lee and has forgiven him, for if he had been barred from going to the second “Belt and Road” Forum again, he would have become the laughing stock in the world especially with the other government leaders at the forum talking about his non-appearance.