SINGAPORE – In Washington, some label him a “Beijing whisperer.”
It’s a characterization Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong laughed off during his recent eight-day trip to the United States, where the two nations affirmed their strong defense ties and the long-serving premier emphasized America’s enduring presence as crucial to the Asia-Pacific’s continued “peace, stability and prosperity.”
But it was other aspects of Lee’s messaging that Chinese state media highlighted and spun, namely his call for America’s leaders to engage and accommodate China – Singapore’s largest trading partner – “on a win-win basis,” and to think harder about avoiding paths to a great power conflict between the world’s two largest economies.
Should the US fail to heed Singapore’s advice, “reality will teach it a profound lesson,” blared a recent editorial in the Chinese state-run Global Times newspaper that cited Lee’s past remarks that Washington should not force Asian nations to take sides, charging that such “voices of reason” are often ignored in a bid to counter China’s rise.
The publication acknowledged the wealthy city-state as having “achieved a relatively good balance between China and the US.” But a deepening global divide between so-called democratic and autocratic camps following Russia’s shock invasion of Ukraine may put Singapore in greater danger of wobbling as it straddles a diplomatic tightrope.
While the island nation’s decision to impose unilateral sanctions against Russia and vocal support for Ukraine has been warmly welcomed in Washington, Beijing likely views Singapore’s stance as pro-Western. Despite US pressure to distance itself from the Kremlin, China has notably reaffirmed its “no limits” partnership with Russia since its invasion.
Lee told reporters during his US trip that Singapore is not choosing sides over Ukraine but is standing up for the principles of territorial integrity and sovereignty enshrined in the United Nations charter. “If [those principles are] up for grabs, then what is our basis for saying we are entitled to exist, and to security and to be safe in the world?” the premier said.
As a sovereign city-state that was once part of a larger neighbor, observers say Singapore’s government is obliged to strongly reject revanchism and breaches of international rules that result in losses of sovereignty. Singapore’s decision to impose sanctions against Moscow was accordingly a stronger position than any of its neighbors in the region.
Singapore typically looks to the UN to set the pace on sanctions, but it leveled financial and trade penalties on Moscow of its own volition, banning the export of goods including electronics and computers that could be used for offensive cyber operations and blocking transactions involving designated Russian banks and entities.