SCS, and the Taiwan-China issue affecting Singapore as well.

William Zheng Wei

Beijing's concerns over Taiwan trump its ties with Singapore. That is why Singapore's leaders need to show they draw a distinction between Taiwan's pro-independence and pro-unification camps.
The Chinese game of Weiqi, also known as Go, is easy to pick up yet hard to master. I have tried to learn it, but after a week I realised it would take very long to advance my playing skills and so I gave up.

Later, my son spent some time learning the Western game of chess and I followed suit. I discovered that Go and chess are polar opposites; chess is more straightforward and the attacks more vicious. Of course, both games have their own beauty. I have always felt that to understand the mentality of the Chinese people, learning a bit of Go would be helpful.

In more Westernised Singapore, many are used to the thinking patterns of chess and when they bump into Go-style playing strategies, their response is often too simple, even naive.

Now that I have set the stage, let's look at Singapore-China relations.


Close relations between Singapore and China have of late suffered a sharp downturn since the Xi-Ma meeting in November 2015 which saw the leaders of China and Taiwan meet in the city state. Since then, Singapore's stance on the South China Sea arbitration court ruling of last year has displeased China, arousing harsh criticism of Singapore in the Chinese media and social media.

Shortly after, Singapore's armoured vehicles were seized in Hong Kong. Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said, "Singapore will not allow any single issue to hijack its longstanding, wide-ranging relationship with China." But in reality, bilateral ties have spiralled downwards quickly. My Singapore businessmen friends have lamented to me that it is very difficult to do business in China under such strained relations.

The Terrex incident attracts eyeballs, that's why it is much talked about. But the biggest indication of Singapore-China relations falling to freezing point was that the annual Singapore- China Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation (JCBC) did not take place last year. This is the first time that has happened in history.

Why is the JCBC meeting so important? Because the joint council is the highest-level annual bilateral platform between China and Singapore, and both countries look to discuss, deepen and expand cooperation at the meeting.

The joint council is co-chaired by Chinese Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli and Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, who have, for the past few years, jointly hosted the JCBC meeting in October. But last year, there was no news of the meeting.

Singapore media has quoted insider sources who claimed that the meeting will be held in May this year. Personally, I am not positive about it happening at all.

Back in November, some experts harboured hopes of the Terrex issue being resolved before the meeting. I was asked if this information was reliable. I answered: Is the cross-strait issue with Taiwan or the bilateral issue with Singapore more important to China? Of course, Taiwan is more important. By holding the armoured vehicles as a trump card, China chose to postpone the JCBC meeting and thereby not give Singapore a chance to raise the issue face to face, knowing full well Singapore would try to do so.

The constant refrain in Singapore is that military training arrangements with Taiwan are longstanding and not a secret. If these arrangements were all right in the past, why not now? The people who recite this mantra lack historical perspective. They have forgotten that the history of Singapore's and Taiwan's military cooperation stemmed from the rapport and trust between Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Mr Chiang Ching-kuo of the Kuomintang (KMT).

I urge these people to consider carefully how the situation has changed. In China's eyes, Singapore's partnership with KMT was, of course, not so much of a problem, because KMT and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have a consensus on "one China, two interpretations". During the presidency of KMT's Ma Ying-jeou, cross-strait ties were peaceful and stable, the possibility of war was extremely low, hence Singapore-Taiwan military exchanges were not a big issue.

Now, however, Taiwan is ruled by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) which does not recognise the 1992 Consensus of one China, two interpretations. US President-elect Donald Trump's phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen and the decision to allow Ms Tsai to transit in the US signal a warming-up of US-Taiwan relations. This in turn has fanned flames in China.

China has started imposing various sanctions on Taiwan. The diplomatic truce in cross-strait ties enjoyed during the Ma Ying-jeou era has swiftly transformed into a confrontational mode. Taiwan's loss of a diplomatic ally in Sao Tome and Principe, which last December switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China, is a clear indication of China rebooting sanctions. I reckon Taiwan will lose another three to five allies this year.

China has also increased its military presence around Taiwan, with its aircraft carrier cruising in and out of the Taiwan Strait and news of defence exercises in the area.


China was also smart in choosing to seize the vehicles in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is a part of China, but also a Special Administrative Region. The Hong Kong government and customs authorities will tackle the issue of the seizure, minimising the trouble to China of having to deal directly with Singapore.

First, paperwork can be conveniently delayed and second, Singapore and Chinese leaders can still meet on cordial terms in future, giving each other room to manoeuvre without losing face.

Next, a look at history.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew, a man who possessed chess-playing skills and the foresight of the bigger picture, held the belief that one day China will reunify with Taiwan.

His close friendship with Mr Chiang Ching-kuo and Mr Deng Xiaoping was the reason he was trusted by both sides and was able to, for more than 20 years from 1973, visit Taiwan regularly without protests from China. But between 1995 and 2000 Mr Lee stopped the regular visits, and after 2000 he never visited Taiwan again.

In 2000, the DPP's Chen Shui-bian became Taiwan's first non-KMT president. He was inaugurated on May 20, and in early June that year, Mr Lee visited Beijing.

During the trip, in response to Singapore media queries whether he was still willing to act as a mediator in cross-strait relations, Mr Lee said: "I visited Taiwan many times, the last was in 1994. I felt that (former Taiwan president) Lee Teng-hui had a clear opinion (about Taiwan's independence), after which I never visited Taiwan again."

Mr Lee had openly expressed his displeasure at Mr Lee Teng-hui's tilt towards independence, and that was why he did not travel to Taiwan for about five to six years during the latter's presidency.

In Mr Lee's book One Man's View Of The World, he said Taiwan's fate would be decided by power realities in cross-strait ties and possible US interference. But the US need not view China as an enemy, Mr Lee concluded, for China and the US will not go to war, let alone engage in war over Taiwan.

Nonetheless, Taiwan remains the biggest crisis between China and the US. "But I do not think the US would go to war with China just to let Taiwan become independent, it is not worth it. Taiwan's unification with China is only a matter of time," Mr Lee said.

In his book, he added that budding cross-strait economic ties would continue to grow and develop in the next four years. Even if the DPP took over and changed the direction of policies after eight years under KMT rule, Taiwanese farmers and entrepreneurs would suffer the consequences and then the DPP would be voted out in the next election.

The wisdom and world views of this far-sighted Singapore leader are always worth a revisit.

To mend Singapore-China ties, it is not enough to just pay lip service to the "One China" principle.

Mr Lee had already demonstrated the model example of abiding by the "One China" principle.

Therefore, government leaders might need to reflect that in concrete action and clearly differentiate between Taiwan's pro-unification and pro-independence camps.