Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Tuesday and had a “productive and candid discussion on international and regional developments,” according to Lee’s Facebook message.
Analysts said that Wang’s visits to neighboring countries, although still with one stop in South Korea, have had a better than expected effect. They not only hedged the negative influence of US senior officials’ previous visits but also show that China’s proposals and practices on multilateralism are more welcome in the region than the US’ small clique aimed at containing other countries.
On his second day in Singapore, Wang met with Lee at the Istana on Tuesday morning. After their meeting, Lee posted on his Facebook, saying that they “had a productive and candid discussion on international and regional developments… Despite challenging global circumstances in the pandemic, we have continued working closely, sharing resources and expertise to better manage the outbreak.”
“Singapore welcomes China’s continued contributions in our part of the world, and will continue working with China to build a more harmonious and peaceful world,” Lee wrote, adding emojis of the two countries’ flags on this post.
“The Singapore leader has given high praise to China’s success in fighting the OCVID-19 pandemic, its anti-virus assistance to ASEAN countries and to the cooperation between China and Singapore,” Chen Xiangmiao, an assistant research fellow at National Institute for South China Sea Studies, told the Global Times on Tuesday.
Questions linger on whether ASEAN countries would sway to the US in the major power competition.
In August, US Vice President Kamala Harris visited Singapore and Vietnam. In July, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin visited Singapore, Vietnam, and the Philippines. Their trips had been interpreted by observers as the Biden administration’s efforts to woo anti-China cliques in Asia.
Lee’s remarks showed that Singapore will remain neutral amid strained China-US ties and maintain its practical and balanced policies in relation to China and the US, Chen said.
The US is working hard to pull Singapore to its side to either influence other ASEAN countries or to contain China. But Singapore’s leaders have kept a clear mind and knows that its country has shared more common ground with China on keeping regional peace and stability, said Zhuang Guotu, president of Chinese Association of Southeast Asian Nations and distinguished professor of Xiamen University.
In an article published in Foreign Affairs in April 2020, Lee wrote that the rivalry between the US and China has intensified, sparking concerns that Asian countries could be compelled to pick one side over the other if ties continue to deteriorate. However, they did not want to be forced to do so.
By having candid talks with Wang, Lee wanted to reassure China that its stance remains unchanged. Singapore, as one of the core member states of ASEAN, also hopes China can help with ASEAN countries’ anti-virus fight and economic recovery in the post-COVID-19 era, Zhuang said.
On Tuesday, Wang and Singapore Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan held a joint press conference in which they said the two countries would focus on coordination in five fields: fighting COVID-19, cooperation under the Belt and Road initiative, on sustainable development and climate change, regional cooperation with ASEAN country and multilateralism.
Wang said this was his fifth face-to-face meeting with Balakrishnan after the COVID-19 pandemic, which fully displayed the close strategic communication and friendship between China and Singapore.
Wang noted that during his stay in Singapore, he discussed wide-ranging topics with Prime Minister Lee and Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat and met Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, and they agreed that in facing COVID-19, China and Singapore have deepened cooperation centering on fighting the virus and on development, and the ties have shown strong tenacity and energy.
The China-Singapore cooperation has exceeded the bilateral scope and set an example to the region and the world. China and Singapore will work with ASEAN countries in upgrading China-ASEAN ties, promote the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and promote the negotiation on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.
China is willing to work with Singapore to firmly safeguard the international system centered on the UN, practice multilateralism and contribute to a new era for development, said Wang.
Singapore is the third stop of Wang’s visit to neighboring countries after Vietnam and Cambodia. And his last stop is South Korea. Analysts said that Wang’s trip is timely in appeasing these countries when they have been under great pressure from the US in picking sides and reassuring them that China’s stance in promoting multilateralism, not unilateralism or hegemony, remains unchanged.
Compared with Harris’ visit which touted US strategic interests, Wang’s visit aims to strengthen cooperation and deepen mutual trust. “Cooperation based on common interests may fade away but friendships on trust would last longer with close people-to-people exchanges,” Zhuang said.
Zhuang noted that Wang focuses on different aspects with each one of the four neighboring countries: in Vietnam, Wang exchanged views with Vietnamese leaders on South China Sea issues and reached consensus that disputes should not affect cooperation in Vietnam; Wang met with old friends in Cambodia and deepened ties; and Wang is likely to strengthen communication with South Korea, one of the US’ allies in its Asia-Pacific strategy.
According to feedback from these countries, Chen believes that Wang’s visits are even better than expected as they hedge the negative influence brought by the US to the region, appease neighboring countries pressured by the US’ hegemony on picking sides. “Facts show that China’s proposal of multilateralism is more popular and welcome than the US’ push of a small clique targeting others,” said Chen.