Lee Kuan Yew’s Legacy for China-Singapore Relations

Though it was the Philippines that initiated an arbitration case against China’s South China Sea claims, the most recent and prominent flare-up of Chinese nationalism case was actually triggered by Singapore. This unusual phenomenon can be explained by the ethnic affinity between China and Singapore. With more than three-quarters of its population comprising of ethnic Chinese, Singapore has developed into a Chinese-dominated society. This means that, on one hand, many in China expect Singapore to stand by China or at least keep a neutral stance in sensitive international issues, as in the case of the South China Sea dispute. On the other hand, Singapore has always implemented pragmatic policies in the international arena, thereby usually clashing against China’s expectations. The gap between what Singapore was supposed to do (from China’s perspective) and what it actually does — between the expectation and the reality — disappoints China.

The recent outburst of China’s resentful feeling of ethnic betrayal by Chinese Singaporeans is not a new phenomenon. LKY himself gained a nasty image in China when he called for the United States to reenter Asia so as to balance a rising China in a speech delivered at the U.S.-ASEAN Business Council’s 25th Anniversary Gala Dinner in 2009. The Singaporean leader was mocked in China as “a running dog of the U.S.”

What was the rationale for LKY asking for an increased U.S. presence in Asia, even at the cost of his shiny image as a friend of China? More to the point, do his views on China and Singapore’s role in between China and the U.S. still matter in today’s international environment?

In the Region: “We Are Part of Southeast Asia”

LKY attached the most importance to Singapore’s regional neighbors when he negotiated with various parties, including China. Besides the Singaporean identity as a nation-state, LKY stoutly claimed Singapore’s affiliation with the region: “We are part of Southeast Asia.” Indeed, Singaporeans would rather be deemed Southeast Asians than “Chinese overseas” or “overseas Chinese,” because they believe both of the latter terms reflect a China-centric mentality.

For a long time, two factors above all concerned the Southeast Asian countries when they were coping with China. First were the relations between the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the communists in Southeast Asian countries. During the 1950s-60s, governments of Southeast Asian states found themselves engaged in armed struggles with communist factions. The latter were widely believed to be backed by the CPC and that perception did much to undermine China’s relations with those countries. Second, and closely related, were issues pertaining to Chinese overseas and overseas Chinese. Southeast Asian governments had been suspicious of their Chinese minorities’ loyalty, worrying that they constituted a “Fifth Column of China” that was manipulated by communist China to overturn the Southeast Asian regimes.

Since its independence, Singapore has been facing a “Chinese problem.” Its neighbors — most notably Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines — all were in the throes of an anti-Chinese movement due to concerns over Beijing exporting communism. As a new nation-state that was dominantly populated by Chinese, and in which the domestic left-wing party was rather active, Singapore was viewed suspiciously by its Southeast Asian neighbors and the West. It was misunderstood as a “Third China” or the “Fifth Column of China.”

LKY did not want to see this situation. In order to keep a distance from China, he made sure his first official visit to China in 1976, as well as the ensuing visits, were conducted entirely in English. This gave his worldwide audience the impression that he was Singaporean instead of Chinese and that Singapore was not a Third China. He also, shockingly to many, declined the gift offered by his Chinese host: a book about the Sino-India war of 1962. In addition, Singapore was the last Southeast Asian country to establish a diplomatic relationship with China.

Proclaiming itself a loyal member of the Southeast Asian family has required Singapore to handle China-related issues cautiously. One thing that Singapore needs to take into serious consideration when formulating foreign policies toward China is its Southeast Asian neighbors’ China policies. Nevertheless, this does not mean that LKY was willing to let others determine Singapore’s relations with China, a country he had long ago seen as having tremendous prospects that Singapore could benefit from. On the contrary, LKY proactively mediated among his neighbors, helping Southeast Asia to understand China’s dramatic changes since Deng Xiaoping’s era. Furthermore he also unhesitatingly argued against China-threat theories.

In Between the East and the West: Pragmatic View on Friendship

LKY skillfully navigated Singapore among the world’s great powers. He recognized that in this globalized, interdependent world, the survival of small countries relied on the stability of big ones. With China rapidly rising into a regional great power, the traditional power division between the U.S. and China is losing balance and has, therefore, become Southeast Asia’s biggest concern. As an influential politician in a region full of small countries, among which Singapore is an economic leader, LKY took the lead in negotiating between China and America, in the best interest of his country as well as regional security. Read more…


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