SINGAPORE’S PRESENT SITUATION vis-a-vis China is the result of a confused mishmash of positions forced together by a government inept at handling change.
Our foreign, economic, immigration and internal security policies towards the Chinese have become an interlocking muddle making it all but impossible for us to send out a clear and consistent signal.
We adhere to the One China policy which, by itself, is not a wrong thing to do.
But as far as the South China Sea (SCS) is concerned, we unnecessarily injected ourselves into a dispute whose resolution was as convoluted as it was going to be protracted. Our interests would have been better served if we had left the controversy to the claimants.
Instead, we chose to stand with the US, echoing its position that according to international law the SCS must remain a free navigation channel. Again, by itself, there is little to fault such a stand.
But we did not stop there. We became the biggest cheerleader for the Trans Pacific Partnership which the US made clear was not just a trade agreement but a tool to re-balance power in Asia (code for the US’ effort to contain China), publicly ridiculed China with ill-advised jokes – in front of an American audience to boot, insulted the Middle Kingdom saying that it was no longer one, condescendingly lectured it on the rule of law, reveled in a state dinner at the White House and, to cap it off, invited the US naval forces to dock at Changi.
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If this is not tone-deafness at its finest, then it must be the most witless act of provocation in human history.
One must wonder if all this has made China even more determined to develop the port in Malacca which observers speculate could double up as a military outpost or push ahead with the One-Belt-One-Road project or intensify its effort with Thailand to cut the Kra canal.
These developments could render the SCS dispute moot, that is, even if the US gets it way and enforces a free channel, Singapore would be crippled as a trading port.
Our situation is made incalculably more untenable with the huge number of Chinese nationals on the island. Our economy, facilitated by an overly liberal immigration policy, actively recruits Chinese nationals into our workforce. Estimates have it anywhere between 500,000 to 1 million people from the PRC living and working in Singapore.
If armed conflict erupts between the US and China, can we be certain how our Chinese guest workers will react? Nationalistic fervour, if one needs to be reminded, is not confined to a country’s borders.
If even a fraction of them decide to publicly vent their anger, it could make the riot in Little India look like a Sunday morning picnic.
There is also the not insignificant matter of our investments in China. Not-so-fun fact: We are the biggest foreign investor in the country. Trade between our two economies stood at more than $115 billion in 2013.
None of this entails us to genuflect to Beijing, no one gets to bully us. But, as I said, there is a difference between making a principled stand and unnecessarily provoking a giant of a friend who can inflict immense damage to our tiny island.
If we are to truly maintain our standing as a member of the Non-Aligned Movement, then we must re-calibrate our relations with the US (whose commitment to this part of the world has taken on an air of unpredictability anyway), reduce our dependence on Chinese workers (and workers from other nations for that matter), re-assure Beijing of our commitment to the One-China policy, maintain our present stance on the SCS controversy but refrain from getting further involved in the imbroglio, and insist on our ministers, especially the Prime Minister, taking a course in international diplomacy.
Then focus on getting our country ready for the future.