Written by Tridivesh Singh Maini.

All eyes were on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech at the Boao Forum, Hainan (the equivalent of the World Economic Forum, Davos).  The Chinese President, has emerged as the most powerful Chinese leader after Mao Zedong (during the National People’s Congress in March 2018, 99.8 percent of delegates voted in favour of an amendment to remove the two term limit on his Presidency.

Other countries within Asia (including China’s neighbours in South Asia and South East Asia) and outside (especially western countries like the US) were closely observing Xi’s speech to ascertain his views on important geo-political and important issues;  Globalization, great power relations and the Belt and Road Initiative.

On the issue of Globalisation, his views were similar to those which he had articulated during last year’s World Economic Forum at Davos. Speaking against insular economic policies and hegemony of any sort, Xi said that countries should remain:

“committed to openness, connectivity and mutual benefits, build an open global economy, and reinforce cooperation within the G-20, APEC and other multilateral frameworks. We should promote trade and investment liberalization and facilitation, support the multilateral trading system…This way, we will make economic globalization, more open, inclusive, balanced and beneficial to all,”

Even vis-à-vis the US President Xi adopted a conciliatory tone, categorically stating that the cold-war zero-sum approach is beneficial to none. The Chinese President also said that China was not in favour of trade surpluses, and spoke about lowering import tariffs on vehicles. While many assumed that Xi made this point in the context of recent trade wars with the US, the Chinese foreign ministry was quick to deny this had anything to do with the China-US trade wars. Interestingly, the spokesman also made the point that China would chart its own course in terms of opening up to the rest of the world.

While commenting on the Belt and Road Initiative which has been a thorny issue, especially with India, Xi Jinping tried to allay apprehensions:

‘China has no geopolitical calculations, seeks no exclusionary blocs and imposes no business deals on others’

The Chinese President has been making concerted efforts to project himself as a globalizer –  after having taken charge as leader for life, such a projection is even more important. US President Donald Trump’s lack of nuance and isolationism has made Xi Jinping’s job even easier. Some of Trump’s steps which have benefited China in the ‘Indo-Pacific’ include, the US exit from the Trans Pacific Partnership and the US President’s transactional approach to economic and strategic issues, which has created insecurities in the minds of allies like Japan and South Korea. Trump’s threats to impose tariffs have been welcomed by certain quarters who argue that President’s Xi’s willingness to address concerns of other countries on tariffs was a consequence of Trump’s tough talk. Others argue that at a time when efforts are being made to reduce tensions with North Korea, this was highly avoidable.

Important points made by the Singapore PM during his China visit

Remarks made by the Singaporean PM, Lee Hisen Loong during the course of a media interview are important. Singapore (ASEAN chair for 2018) shares close relations with China and the US.  In an interview to the People’s Daily Newspaper before the beginning of the Summit, the Singaporean PM spoke in favour of the Belt and Road Initiative:

‘The (BRI) will benefit many countries that need more and better infrastructure. It is also compatible with keeping the regional architecture and international system open and inclusive’

During the course of the interview Lee also emphatically stated that Singapore will favour Chinese participation in ‘regional architecture’ as well as the ‘international system’

While speaking at the forum, he said that the US and China needed to resolve their current differences over trade, given the importance of the relationship. The Singapore PM dubbed it as the ‘most important bilateral relationship in the world and if the ‘disputes escalate and destabilise US-China relations, the consequences for the world could be catastrophic.’ He advised China to contribute more to multilateralism.

Singapore through its visionary leadership, deft diplomacy, and commendable economic achievements has been hugely successful in punching above its weight within the Indo-Pacific region.

China will have paid close attention to the Singapore PM’s remarks, since Beijing has looked up to Singapore – especially in the context of its efficient governance, and successful running of state owned enterprises. The architect of China’s reforms and modernization, Deng Xiaoping, repeated on more than one occasion that China could learn a lot from Singapore’s experience. A number of Chinese officials, from state owned enterprises go every year to study Public Policy related courses in Singapore. However, it remains to be seen how seriously Beijing takes the Singapore PM’s advice with regard to being more open in every sense and pro-actively participating in the International System.

Singapore’s role in improving ties between India and China

Given the fact, that Singapore shares close ties with both China and India. It remains to be seen if Singapore can play a role in resetting ties between both countries. Singapore played an important role in nudging India to ‘look East’ in the 1990’s (a term used for India’s economic and strategic vision vis-a-vis ASEAN regional grouping and Japan – the current government has renamed this as ‘Act East’). Since then India’s ties with Singapore, as well as ASEAN, have come a long way (from being a sectoral dialogue partner in 1992, India-ASEAN ties were elevated to a strategic partnership. To commemorate 25 years of India’s ties with ASEAN, leaders from all ASEAN states were invited as Chief Guests for the Republic Day Celebrations in 2018) .

During PM Modi’s visit to Singapore in November 2015, a joint declaration – calling for a ‘Strategic Partnership – and upgrading economic and strategic ties was signed. Singapore has also been urging India to give its consent to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade pact, which consists of (ASEAN, Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand). New Delhi is skeptical about the ASEAN demand with regard to significant dismantling of important tariffs as it would benefit China. India  has to take into account the concerns and interests of domestic lobbies. It remains to be seen whether Singapore and other ASEAN countries can play an important role in addressing India’s concerns, and how China addresses the apprehensions of other stakeholders especially India.

Conclusion

In conclusion, Singapore through its visionary leadership, deft diplomacy, and commendable economic achievements has been successful in punching above its weight within the Indo-Pacific region.  As a beneficiary of globalization it would want great powers like US and China to iron out their differences, and not adopt inward looking policies. This was evident from the Singapore PM’s speech at Boao Forum. Given its relevance in Asia, Singapore is likely to play an important role not just in the context of geo-political issues, but also issues like the RCEP, it remains to be seen how it strikes a fine balance between ties with New Delhi and Beijing.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Dehli based policy analyst associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs. He tweets @tridiveshsinghImage credit: by Indian Ministry of External Affairs/Flickr.

 

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