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  • Assessing China’s Changing Attitudes towards Singapore

The China–Singapore relationship withstood some major disruptions in 2016, a highly unusual year in the history of the relationship. This article offers a comprehensive examination of China’s changing attitudes towards Singapore as reflected in the wide-ranging reactions across various segments of the Chinese society to the relational tensions in 2016. It reviews the events that disrupted the relationship, identifies seven major areas of disagreement and controversy between China and Singapore, examines the diverse Chinese debates about Singapore, and outlines major challenges for the future of the relationship. Although some of these disruptions in 2016 were incidental and may be explained by tactical misunderstandings and misperception, deeper strategic causes were also at play and may resurface in the future.


The year 2016 stood out prominently as a highly unusual year in the history of China–Singapore relations. Not since the two countries established high-level contact in the late 1970s has the relationship encountered so many disruptions and uncertainties in a single year. Most disruptions were in the form of Chinese elites’ and the media’s verbal criticisms of Singapore. The Chinese foreign ministry intervened with its own statements of displeasure, but economic ties between the two countries have not been substantially damaged and the relationship appears to have stabilised in 2017. Nevertheless, it is important to look back at the tensions and draw lessons that might be useful for steering the relationship forward in the future.

Singapore elites have taken great pains to argue that it is China’s expectations of Singapore that have altered, not Singapore’s policy towards China. They imply that China’s changing attitudes and expectations are the root of the tension.1 The Chinese [End Page 1] side is likely to retort that it is precisely because of the lack of change from Singapore that has irritated China and caused unease. Regardless of the cause of the tension, both sides agreed that China’s attitudes towards Singapore have indeed undergone some profound fluctuations.

This article offers a comprehensive examination of China’s changing attitudes towards Singapore as reflected in wide-ranging reactions across various segments of the Chinese society to the relational disquiet in 2016.2 It draws on the views and analyses of Chinese policymakers, intellectual elites, the media and the general public, and assesses their significance and policy relevance to future Sino–Singapore relations.

The article is organised into four sections. The first describes the major disruptions in 2016, from the controversy over whether China was seeking to divide the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), to the detention of Singapore’s Terrex armoured vehicles by Hong Kong customs. Based on Chinese reactions to these events, the second section examines seven major areas of disagreement and controversy between China and Singapore, ranging from the South China Sea issue to the nature of Singapore’s foreign policy. This is followed by a more fine-tuned analysis of the spectrum of views among Chinese observers since Chinese debates about Singapore do not reflect a single uniform view. The article concludes by outlining some major challenges ahead for Singapore’s policy towards China.

How seriously should Singapore take the changing Chinese views analysed in this article? Do they reflect deep and enduring trends in the relationship or are they fleeting and fickle responses to events in 2016? Although some of these relational disruptions in 2016 were incidental and may be explained by tactical misunderstandings and misperception, deeper strategic causes were also at play and may resurface in the future. This article explores these strategic causes by extensively dissecting Chinese views.


For some Chinese observers, the Sino–Singapore relationship went downhill from its peak almost immediately after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s successful state visit to Singapore on 6–7 November 2015. On 27 November 2015, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivered a major foreign policy speech at Nanyang Technological University. Towards the end of his speech, he described Singapore’s relationship with China as “very good” but he added that “it is quite clear that we are Singapore, they are China, and we are different countries…When Singapore leaders meet Chinese leaders in formal meetings, we speak in English and use interpreters, even though [End Page 2] many of our leaders understand and can speak Mandarin”.3 While this is a statement of fact, some Chinese diplomats felt that Prime Minister Lee was intentionally trying to distance Singapore from China and dilute the perception that Singapore was moving too close to China after Xi’s visit. Chinese observers also pointed out that the relationship began to falter thereafter.4

In December 2015, Singapore signed an Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement with the United States. China was alarmed by Singapore’s agreement to allow rotational access of the US Navy’s P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft, which could be used to monitor Chinese activities in the South China Sea.5 Chinese officials viewed this as the most significant deployment of US military assets in Singapore since the city state’s 2013 decision to host four US littoral combat ships by 2017.6 That the P-8 deployment occurred several weeks after the Barack Obama administration conducted its first freedom of navigation operations against Chinese construction activities in the Spratly Islands fuelled the perception that Singapore was assisting the United States against China in the South China Sea.

In March 2016, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal on a wide range of issues while attending the US–ASEAN Summit,7 Prime Minister Lee championed, among other things, the significance of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade pact as the sine qua non of the Obama administration’s Asia rebalancing strategy. Such strong promotion of the TPP as both a strategic and economic initiative, on this occasion and many others, has considerably irked the Chinese, because they viewed the TPP as a US and regional plot to limit China’s economic influence. Although Lee, as well as many of his officials, also mentioned the possibility of China joining the TPP in the future, Chinese observers overlooked the nuances of meaning in these statements because they found Singapore’s strong advocacy of the TPP and its efforts to persuade the United States to ratify it too overwhelming.

In April 2016, during his visit to Brunei, Laos and Cambodia, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi claimed to have reached a four-point consensus with these countries on the South China Sea issue, including an understanding that territorial disputes were “not an issue between China and ASEAN as a whole”. Ong Keng Yong and Bihahari Kausikan, two ambassadors-at-large of Singapore’s foreign ministry, criticised China for meddling in ASEAN’s internal affairs and for dividing ASEAN ahead of [End Page 3] the release of the international tribunal’s Philippines versus China arbitration ruling on the South China Sea dispute.8

These comments sparked a firestorm of rebuttals among Chinese officials and analysts. Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin denied any intention on China’s part to split up ASEAN. Xue Li, an influential analyst at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, asserted that the accusation of China’s intention to divide ASEAN reflects Singapore’s “small-country centrism” that prioritises an ASEAN common position above the national interests of individual ASEAN member states and overlooks important Chinese interests. Xue wondered whether this position is appropriate.9

In June 2016, China and ASEAN held a special foreign minister’s meeting in Yuxi, Yunnan province of China. It came at a highly sensitive moment: the Philippines versus China arbitration ruling was about to be released. At the event, China and ASEAN clashed over the South China Sea issue. Beijing warned ASEAN members against issuing a joint statement about the ruling and challenged ASEAN’s centrality and role in the South China Sea issue. The ASEAN side initially prepared a joint statement sternly criticising China, but after Cambodia and Laos realised the full extent of Chinese objections, they baulked at signing the statement, and this left ASEAN without a consensus position again. Consequently, the meeting ended without the issuance of a joint statement from the ASEAN members; neither was there one issued between ASEAN and China. Also, a joint press conference between the two co-chairs, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, failed to take place. Instead, ASEAN simply stated that member states had the right to issue their individual statements about the meeting.10

Chinese observers considered the turn of events an indication of tension between China and ASEAN, and blamed Singapore for failing in its duty as the coordinating country for China–ASEAN relations (2015–2018). Singapore’s statement about the meeting “noted the serious concerns expressed by the ASEAN Foreign Ministers over the developments on the ground and called on ASEAN and China to continue working together to maintain the peace and stability of the South China Sea”.11 Chinese [End Page 4] observers believed that Singapore wanted to play the role of a “hardline non-claimant ASEAN country” in order to highlight its stance, and this is inappropriate for and not in keeping with the role of a bona fide coordinator of China–ASEAN relations, particularly when Singapore Foreign Minister Balakrishnan was absent from the press conference following the meeting.12

Singapore issued a carefully balanced statement after the release of the Philippines versus China arbitration ruling on 12 July. China found the language and tone Singapore adopted in the statement that it was “taking note” of the ruling to be satisfactory. However, Chinese officials and analysts noticed from Lee’s visit to the United States in August 2016 that he not only championed the ratification of the TPP and linked it to US leadership in Asia, which they considered offensive, but he had also remarked that “the ruling of the tribunal has made a strong statement on what the international law is”.13 That seemed to contradict the foreign ministry’s position of only “taking note” of the ruling without making a judgement about its merits. Perhaps there is a difference between characterising the ruling as “a strong statement on what the international law is” and supporting it as a way for managing South China Sea disputes in the future.14 If so, the Chinese could have simply missed the nuances. Whether or not they have read the original remarks in full, leading Chinese experts began to hold the view that Singapore was calling on relevant countries to accept the ruling. As such, Singapore, in their eyes, has become another country like the United States, Japan and Australia that explicitly supported the ruling, and thus one of those countries to follow the United States in exerting pressure on China. This was then taken as evidence that Singapore had taken sides on the South China Sea issue.15

Lee further added in his remarks that it was not unprecedented for a big power like China to sidestep international law. Moreover, he described the South China Sea disputes as “a thorn in the relationship” between China and Southeast Asian claimant states, but “not the whole relationship”, and therefore it “needs to be managed”.16 This very point about the South China Sea not constituting the overall relationship between China and ASEAN aligns closely to China’s own position, but the Chinese media failed to report these remarks, let alone emphasise them. Nevertheless, according to a [End Page 5] Chinese official, when a top foreign policy official read through the original English transcript of the remarks, he still felt irritated.17 The ruling clearly touched a raw nerve in China over the South China Sea.

China was also suspicious of Lee’s active diplomacy from August through October 2016 when he travelled to the United States, Japan, India and Australia. Japan and Australia are key US allies. India is an emerging security partner of the United States and Singapore is seen by many Chinese as a quasi-ally of the United States. The countries that Lee visited in his itinerary caused some Chinese elites to wonder whether he was attempting to forge a regional coalition against China in the South China Sea, even though he also went to China in September to attend the G20 summit. His visit to Japan was particularly controversial. Beijing found it offensive that Singapore openly supported Japan playing a more active role in the region.18 Some Chinese experts also took issue with a seemingly irrelevant event—Lee’s acceptance of a prestigious posthumous award for the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew at the Akasaka State Guest House in Tokyo.19 Given the role of Akasaka Palace in the history of Japanese imperialism against China, Chinese experts alleged that Lee’s visit to the palace grounds to accept the award demonstrated Singapore’s lack of sensitivity to Sino–Japanese relations.20

In an interview with Ian Bremmer in late October, Lee again emphasised the TPP’s significance in bolstering the American credibility in Asia. In this context, he made a remark that “[t]he Chinese go around with lollipops in their pockets”21 to lend a contrast to America’s weak economic diplomacy with China’s economic strength. Many Chinese elites, however, found such a metaphor disrespectful.

Amid the gathering clouds over China–Singapore relations came the most disruptive event in 2016. The Global Times—a subsidiary of the People’s Daily, which is the mouthpiece of the Communist Party of China (CPC)—published an article in September, accusing Singapore of bringing up the issue of the South China Sea disputes at the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit held in Venezuela on 18 September. Singapore’s [End Page 6] Ambassador to Beijing Stanley Loh wrote an open letter to refute this. The Global Times editors and Chinese officials then weighed in to defend their positions.22

Singapore was indignant at the Global Times’ distortion of the NAM summit’s proceedings and the mischaracterisation of Singapore’s role. The Global Times’ position, as represented by the original report and the editor-in-chief Hu Xijin’s response to Ambassador Loh’s letter, was that Singapore sided with the Philippines and Vietnam, and also chorused in unison with the United States and Japan in opposing China, and thus overreacting on the South China Sea. It also criticised Singapore’s hosting of the US littoral combat ships and the P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft as detrimental to Chinese interests. The Chinese foreign ministry, presumably the source of the Global Times report, defended the report by declaring that “[i]t is a clear fact that a very small number of countries insisted on playing up South China Sea-related contents in the NAM Final Document”. On whether this incident would affect China–Singapore relations, a foreign ministry spokesman emphasised that the two countries should mutually understand and respect each other’s core interests and major concerns.23

In this kind of political environment, the argument that Singapore was only adopting a principled position lacked credibility to those who believed Singapore was taking sides. By then, many Chinese elites had reached a consensus that Singapore had already chosen its side, i.e. against China, over the South China Sea. To them, Singapore’s insistence on a principled position while effectively taking sides was the core of the problem and evidence of hypocrisy.24 Some argued that Singapore must pay a price for damaging China’s interests. Thus, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Major General Jin Yinan asserted that China must take punitive countermeasures against Singapore to convey its discontent.25

Subsequent to the NAM incident, the Sino–Singapore relationship had reached the nadir. But the fracas was not over. On 23 November, Hong Kong detained nine Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Terrex infantry carrier vehicles that were in transit after a military exercise in Taiwan. Although Hong Kong Customs explained that the seizure was an outcome of a routine inspection and had nothing to do with the deteriorating political relationship between China and Singapore, many observers in both countries suspected that the detention was a Beijing-instigated coordinated effort, not an [End Page 7] autonomous law enforcement action by Hong Kong Customs. A popular view holds that at the time when Taiwan’s new leader Tsai Ing-wen was promoting her Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP) pro-independence agenda, seizing the vehicles in transit from Taiwan could simultaneously bash Singapore, while pressuring Taiwan. Utilising Hong Kong was also a smart move because Beijing could deal with Singapore without being seen to be directly involved, thus preserving a necessary diplomatic space for China–Singapore relations.26

The Chinese foreign ministry called on Singapore to honour the “one China” principle in cross-strait relations and warned Singapore against maintaining military ties with Taiwan.27 The Singapore government took a low-key legal approach to the incident, urging Hong Kong to resolve the matter according to its own laws and regulations. It argued that the vehicles were the property of the Singapore government and were protected by the international legal doctrine of sovereign immunity, and therefore could not be seized or forfeited.28 This position was apparently effective, as Hong Kong announced its intention to return the vehicles on 24 January 2017. However, it remains unclear whether the decision came from Hong Kong because of its observance of the rule of law or from Beijing due to political considerations.

Chinese analysts argued at the time that the principle of sovereign immunity was not universally valid. If Singapore had applied for a transit licence, then Hong Kong should have abided by the principle of sovereign immunity. Otherwise, Hong Kong’s approach to the issue would have to follow its own laws. Without such legal constraints, so the argument goes, any country could use the principle of sovereign immunity to transit armaments through other countries’ ports. Besides, even if immunity can be granted to sovereign properties, the same cannot be said of commercial contracts, since the shipment of the Terrex vehicles was a commercial act. Hong Kong Customs also has tight restrictions on the import and export of arms, and it was a normal law enforcement procedure to detain vehicles that were already offloaded onshore. These analysts asserted that Singapore has long been ignoring China’s opposition to the military cooperation between Singapore and Taiwan. To them, international law, with many loose ends to exploit, is only an instrument for achieving national interests. Political relationships are often a necessary condition for operationalising legal principles, including the sovereign immunity doctrine. Although [End Page 8] it is understandable that Singapore would take a legal approach, such an approach would not by itself help resolve the incident.29 This view implies that Singapore’s argument about sovereign immunity would not appear compelling to either Hong Kong or Beijing, and it may well have been Beijing’s political desire to de-escalate tension with Singapore, rather than any persuasive legal position from Singapore’s side, that secured the Terrex vehicles release.


The series of disruptions in China–Singapore relations throughout 2016 are highly unusual in the history of the relationship. These disruptions reveal seven major areas of disagreement and controversy between the two sides. Examining these controversies, and the Chinese perceptions and attitudes towards them is important in order for Singapore to understand China’s changing perspectives and to develop appropriate policy responses.

The South China Sea

The first and foremost controversy is the South China Sea. Indeed, tension in the South China Sea provided the immediate context for the deterioration of Sino–Singapore relations in 2016. Many Chinese elites questioned why Singapore, a non-claimant country, should be so interested in the South China Sea and the July 2016 arbitration ruling.

Xue Li provided a representative and influential example of Chinese perceptions. Xue, usually a moderate voice in Chinese debates about the South China Sea, even remarked that Singapore has thrown in its lot with the United States and its allies against China. Taking sides in such a way, he commented, is unwise. Singapore is a non-claimant country and, more importantly, the coordinating country for China–ASEAN relations. Just when China was prepared to alleviate the tensions and “turn the page” on the arbitration ruling, Singapore, however, led the ASEAN response to oppose China as if it commanded the “truth” of the matter, thus in effect playing a role similar to that of the Philippines under Benigno Aquino III’s administration. Xue argued that it is rare in international politics for a small country to challenge a big country, but this time around, Singapore is seen picking up a challenge and targeting its “cultural motherland”. Xue pointed out that after the release of the arbitration ruling, Lee visited the United States and Japan but bypassed China, and also made remarks in the United States perceived as pressuring China over the ruling. Xue considered these moves as not representative of a mature diplomacy of great power balancing.30 [End Page 9]

Another analyst argued that Singapore has played no small part in raising tensions in the South China Sea. The South China Sea issue initially centred on territorial and maritime disputes between China and Southeast Asian claimant states, but Singapore intentionally drew extra-regional countries (such as the United States, Japan and the European Union) into the disputes in order to balance China. Another tactic on Singapore’s part was to provide high-level platforms that stoke up negative international opinion about Chinese policy towards the South China Sea, including, most prominently, the annual Shangri-La Dialogue that has become a routine venue for regional and international criticism of China. This analyst deduced the following: Singapore recognised China as the source of instability in the South China Sea and as a rival of Southeast Asia, hence it decided to side with the United States; although Singapore rarely engages in public confrontations with China, its ability to damage China’s national interests should not be underestimated.31

Singapore’s Relationship with the United States

The second controversy, related to the South China Sea tension, is Singapore’s relationship with the United States. This question has long fascinated Chinese officials and analysts. They appreciate the argument that great power balancing is a fundamental strategic tenet of Singapore’s foreign policy. However, given the recent tensions in the South China Sea, many elites began to perceive that instead of great power balancing, Singapore is leaning towards the United States.

An editorial carried by the Global Times reflects this changing perception. Written as a commentary on Lee’s visit to the United States in August 2016, this editorial criticised Lee’s support of the US rebalance strategy. As the rebalance is seen as directed against China, as highlighted in the editorial, Singapore’s support for the rebalance strategy already shows its inclination to take the US side. Compared to some other editorials written in bombastic language that is typical of the Global Times, this particular editorial is balanced and even nuanced. On the one hand, it recognised Singapore’s security concerns on Malaysia and Indonesia, its heavy dependence on America for security and also its reluctance to offend China. On the other, it scorned Singapore’s instinct to “embrace the fat leg of America” when unable to play a balancing game. Further, it urged Singapore not to take sides between China and America because becoming America’s “pawn” will reduce its flexibility of action between the two countries and will even lose its significance of being useful to Washington, as a result. The editorial advised China to be considerate towards Singapore in light of its many foreign policy difficulties. However, it sternly insisted that Singapore not overreact and assist the United States in opposing China over disputes in the South China Sea and Southeast Asia. This should not be an excessive demand on Singapore since it claims to be a [End Page 10] friend of China; hence, it must try its best to avoid damaging Chinese interests, even though it is entitled to curry favour with America. The editorial drew a conclusion that Singapore, in agreeing to host US deployment of P-8 Poseidon surveillance aircraft, has fallen behind in performing this balancing act.32

Singapore’s Policy towards ASEAN

The third controversy, Singapore’s policy towards ASEAN, is also related to the South China Sea tension. Chinese experts complained that Singapore has overlooked the reasonable and restrained dimension of China’s South China Sea policy and tends to agree with the views of Southeast Asian claimant states and extra-regional powers. Thus, Singapore had called on China to clarify its claims, pushed for negotiation over a code of conduct, assisted the Obama administration in implementing its rebalance strategy, and intensified efforts for an ASEAN common position. When these measures failed to elicit a positive response from China, Singapore pushed even harder for greater US intervention and a stronger ASEAN position. In China’s view, Singapore has failed to play the role of an impartial coordinator for ASEAN–China relations, but rather a promotor of ASEAN interests.33

According to these experts, Singapore’s handling of the Special ASEAN–China Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in June 2016 reflected some of the major principles it upholds and its policy preferences towards ASEAN, the United States and China. Singapore is an active promoter of ASEAN integration and embraces a firmer position on ASEAN unity than most other ASEAN members. Besides, it always regards the United States as the ultimate external security provider and welcomes Washington’s moves to augment its presence in the region in order to balance China’s rise. While Singapore ardently develops economic and cultural relations with China and plays a bridging role between Beijing and Taipei, building a security relationship with China is a different matter altogether. Although it does not want to choose between China and the United States in its overall foreign policy, in regard to the South China Sea issue, Singapore coordinates with the United States in applying pressure on China.34

Singapore’s Military Relationship with Taiwan

The fourth controversy, provoked by the Terrex vehicles incident, is Singapore’s military relationship with Taiwan. The Starlight programme, a training arrangement agreed between Singapore Armed Forces and Taiwan for its units to conduct military exercises in Taiwan since the 1970s, is well known to Chinese observers. The Chinese government [End Page 11] has long tolerated such military ties, even after establishing formal diplomatic relations with Singapore in 1990. In recent years, however, Chinese perceptions have gradually changed, and many observers have begun to attach conditions to Chinese tolerance. One such condition is the nature of the ruling regime in Taiwan and the dynamics in cross-strait relations. The Terrex incident occurred at a particularly sensitive time when cross-strait ties are deteriorating as a result of the new Tsai administration’s pro-independence agenda. China can tolerate Singapore’s military training in Taiwan when the Guomindang (the Nationalist Party, or KMT) is in power, as the KMT is nominally committed to the “one-China” principle. But China’s tolerance has its limits, especially if the pro-independence DPP is in power in Taiwan.35

The Cultural Dimension

The fifth controversy is the cultural dimension of Singapore’s foreign policy and the role of cultures and races in Singapore–China relations. This is, of course, an enduring and sensitive theme in Singapore–China relations, but it has been brought to the fore by tensions in the relationship throughout 2016. What has puzzled culturally minded Chinese observers is Singapore’s apparent intent on picking fights with China even though it is a Chinese-majority country. In unravelling the puzzle, Chinese observers analysed that that Singapore’s ethnic Chinese leaders, such as Lee Kuan Yew and Lee Hsien Loong, are not “our people” (ziji ren) of the “same cultural and ethnic heritage” (tongwen tongzhong), instead they are elite products of a Westernised education system and do not identify with Chinese culture. These observers also argued that Lee Kuan Yew’s fundamental task in the early days of nation-building was to dilute the Chinese identity of Singapore’s Chinese-majority society and instead, to promote a Singaporean identity. Singapore also has a fixed strategy to limit the impact of a rising China with a predominantly Han Chinese population on Singapore’s delicate cultural and social fabric. Singapore must therefore contain China’s influence by seeking American help to balance China.36

Some Chinese commentators complained that although there is nothing wrong in Singapore’s acceptance of Western cultural and educational systems, it is inappropriate for it to adopt a condescending attitude of trying to “teach” Asian countries, including China, simply because of its deeper ties with the West. They perceived a “sense of superiority” and “arrogance” from Singapore, and wondered if China’s culturally [End Page 12] generated affection for Singapore and humility in learning from the Singapore experience have fed such attitudes.37

Xue Li also emphasised culture in what he perceived as recent failures in Singapore’s foreign policy. Xue asserted that Singapore has disparaged the cultural attributes in diplomacy, jettisoned the principle of “comfort level” that is the essence of the so-called “ASEAN way”, and also ignored the role that “face culture” (mianzi) plays in Chinese diplomacy. Instead, Singapore now prefers to adopt Western approaches and thinking when dealing with China, as exemplified by its preference for public rather than private exchanges, as well as rationality and law over emotions and politics. In particular, it fails to properly grasp the balance between “public announcements” and “private communications”. To Xue, these diplomatic traits have laid bare the real nature of Singapore as “not of our race” (feiwo zulei). Xue speculated that this could be a deep-seated reason why Chinese public opinions—across the whole ideological spectrum—have all exhibited antipathy towards Singapore.38

The Nature of Singapore’s Foreign Policy

The preceding five controversies inform discussions about the nature of Singapore’s foreign policy, the sixth major controversy. The conventional wisdom among Chinese observers is that Singapore’s foreign policy has historically been guided by the fundamental strategic principle of great power balancing. Moderate voices argued that pragmatism is still the defining feature in Singapore’s foreign policy, even amid tensions in 2016.39 However, those tensions have significantly eroded the credibility of this argument. The prevailing view, at least judging from Chinese reactions in 2016, is that Singapore has already taken its side with the United States, Japan, ASEAN and even some Southeast Asian claimant states over the South China Sea issue. In fact, a more pronounced extreme view has held out: besides reprising its traditional role as the “mastermind” of ASEAN, Singapore not only takes a pro-US and anti-China [End Page 13] policy over the South China Sea issue, it also offers itself as an advisor to the United States and as a “pawn” in the US rebalancing strategy towards Asia to contain China.40

Singapore’s Leadership

Given the escalating tensions in 2016, some Chinese analysts took the convenient approach to compare the policies and strategies of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, with those of the current leadership. Some observers attempted to speculate how Lee Kuan Yew would have approached the deadlock in the relationship in 2016 if he were alive. Shortly after the Terrex vehicles incident, a popular Chinese blogger wrote a widely read online article, entitled “How to Resolve the Armoured Vehicles Incident? Ask Lee Kuan Yew”. According to this blogger, Lee Kuan Yew’s firm grasp of cross-strait relations had enabled him to gain trust from both Beijing and Taipei. The senior Lee was very clear about the distinctions between pro-unification and pro-independence forces in Taiwan and also adamant never to visit Taiwan when the pro-independence faction was in power. The senior Lee recognised China’s rise and envisaged the gradual absorption of Taiwan into mainland China as a trend. The blogger suggested that it does not suffice for the current Singapore government to repeat its adherence to the “one-China” principle in its rhetoric when managing the trilateral relationship with Beijing and Taipei; it must act on that principle, as Lee Kuan Yew did in the past.41


As with the myriads of other internal debates about Chinese foreign policy, the debate on Singapore’s does not reflect a single uniform perspective. On the contrary, diverse views and interpretations are common among a host of Chinese observers including policymakers, intellectual elites, the media and the public. Broadly speaking, they can be divided into three camps: the moderate, the assertive and the hard-line. The boundaries between them are sometimes indistinct, as individual observers may shift their positions on different issues. It is also difficult to match different camps with the political, social or ideological positions of different societal groups. Nevertheless, main fault lines are apparent among these camps, running across all of the major policy controversies described earlier (Table 1). [End Page 14]

Table 1. A S C’ C A S
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Table 1.

A Spectrum of Chinas Changing Attitudes towards Singapore

The Moderate Camp

The moderates are more sensitive and sympathetic to Singapore’s positions. They are able to maintain a critical perspective of China’s own flaws and problems—a rarity in China today where triumphalism rules the day. Zhu Feng, a leading South China Sea expert based at Nanjing University and a well-known and influential moderate voice, is one such moderate who wrote a widely read article in defence of Singapore following the NAM incident.42 He argued that it is misleading to judge Singapore’s foreign policy as “anti-China” simply because China and Singapore have different perceptions about the proceedings at the NAM summit. Characterising Singapore as a restrained—rather than a high-profile or crude—critic of China’s South China Sea policy, Zhu rationalised that Singapore does not have much capability or intention to harm China, and still deserves China’s respect. [End Page 15]

Zhu also faulted some Chinese observers for their narrow and partial world view, and advised China to listen and respond to other countries’ views with care and goodwill. Instead of lashing out at other countries with reprisals or punishment because of their different views, China needs to understand the reasons for their apprehension and concern. An emotionally charged coercive diplomacy suggests that Chinese diplomacy is still stuck in a hierarchical and premature “imperial mindset”.

On the question whether Singapore has taken sides, Zhu’s view is, however, almost identical to that of the assertive and hard-line camps: Singapore’s foreign and security policy has long been on the side of the United States because it is a “military ally of the United States”. Zhu cited Prime Minister Lee’s speech, in which Lee expressed apprehension about China’s rise, at the Nikkei International Conference on 29 September 2016 as an evidence.43

Some moderates have correctly discerned that most Chinese observers have a penchant for taking Singapore’s diplomatic language out of context. An analyst pointed out that Chinese observers’ characterisation of Prime Minister Lee’s August 2016 comment about the arbitration ruling as “making a strong statement” was not entirely accurate as the comment formed only part of a coherent set of remarks and was really a statement of fact rather than a declaration of intent to pressure China.44

On the nature of Singapore’s foreign policy, the same aforementioned analyst highlighted that Singapore is an independent sovereign country, not a client state of China. Hence, Singapore has its own national interests. It is simply unrealistic for China to expect Singapore to unconditionally sacrifice its interests or submit to China. Neither is it realistic to enlist all regional countries to join China in criticising the United States. As Singapore practises the strategic principle of great power balancing, it will befriend all the great powers and not choose sides among them. To make friends with powerful countries requires commitment of principles and capabilities. From the standpoint of its national interests, Singapore sometimes criticises China, the United States and other countries, but it will never become fixated on its criticisms of any one country. The balance it seeks among the great powers is a dynamic one. Historically, Singapore has not only offended China, but also the United States, Taiwan, Australia and other countries. While Singapore indeed harbours suspicions of China, it has also supported China in a wide range of significant issues.45

Similarly, Song Wei, a scholar from Renmin University of China in Beijing, criticised Chinese elites for indulging in “emotional diplomacy” over the NAM incident. Song urged them to consider and ponder the following basic questions: As an ASEAN member, should Singapore not be the first to support a common ASEAN position [End Page 16] even if this position deviates from Chinese preferences or interests? Would Singapore possibly lean completely towards China? If Singapore shows no inclination towards China and does not support China over the South China Sea issue, does this mean that Singapore has become an enemy of China? Singapore is an independent country, not an ally of either the United States or China. It must first align its interests with those of ASEAN rather than with those of China. China could voice its protest against Singapore’s policies, but condemning Singapore with inflammatory rhetoric is basically pointless. Bringing emotions into foreign policy only serves to exaggerate differences and disregard common interests as a consequence. Many Chinese elites have approached foreign policy only from the perspective of China’s own interests and emotions. They believed that since China is Singapore’s largest trading partner, Singapore must unconditionally support China. But both conflicts and cooperation are common in international politics. If China presents itself as a benefactor of Singapore, that will only arouse Singapore’s antipathy towards China.46

The Assertive Camp

If such moderate views were reflected in the mainstream before 2016, they were rapidly overtaken by more assertive voices—including formerly moderate scholars such as Xue Li—due to mounting tensions in 2016. Most of the positions discussed earlier are illustrative examples of Chinese reactions to the China–Singapore relationship in 2016 that can be categorised as the assertive camp.

The assertive camp argued that Singapore has sided with the United States and its allies in opposition to China over the South China Sea, by, for example, supporting the arbitration ruling of July 2016. It had actively invited Washington to expand its presence in Asia to balance rising Chinese power by granting access to the US military and emphasising the strategic significance of the TPP. Promoting balance among the great powers no longer characterises Singapore’s foreign policy; using regional and extra-regional powers to balance China does.47 Singapore has also rallied ASEAN members to forge a consensus position against China over the South China Sea issue. A leading Chinese scholar alleged that Singapore was determined to be “the United States of Asia” by continuing to facilitate the Obama administration’s rebalancing strategy even though the strategy has lost steam, and by speaking up for the arbitration ruling even though the new Philippine administration under Rodrigo Duterte has temporarily put it aside.48 Singapore has also violated China’s long-standing position of opposing the maintenance of any official ties, including military ones, by other countries with Taiwan. Some observers from the assertive camp also accused Singapore [End Page 17] elites of being arrogant and condescending towards China and the Chinese people. They criticised Singapore for failing to appreciate the significance of culture in its policy towards China.

The assertive camp believes that it is a major strategic misjudgement on Singapore’s part to side with the United States. While aligning with the United States would have made sense during the Cold War, it is, however, a changed world today and unwise to continue to fall back on the United States. The United States has made a series of strategic mistakes since the end of the Cold War, and consequently, it no longer commands to dominate the world. A rising China, on the other hand, is reshaping a new world order. If Singapore fails to appreciate this power transition between the two world orders and does not devise policies pertinent to the changing times, it may commit disruptive mistakes.49

The Hard-liners

The hard-liners hold the most ardently critical view of Singapore, without recognising the nuances of Singapore’s position or China’s own problems. Their central assertion is that Singapore has adopted an anti-China policy, similar to that of the United States, for containing China.50 The hard-liners even traced the origin of the Obama administration’s rebalancing strategy to Lee Kuan Yew’s visit to the United States in 2009, speculating that it was the senior Lee who convinced Barack Obama of the significance of the Asia-Pacific region. To the hard-liners, Singapore is but the United States’ “comprador” in Asia, ostensibly friendly to China but pro-American at the core. Several origins of Singapore’s “anti-China” policy appear to be obvious to the hard-liners. First, historically opposed to communism, Singapore has long viewed the CPC’s rule of China with suspicion, because a powerful communist China could affect Singapore’s political stability, which it seeks to maintain by lending the United States support to contain China.

Second, if the scenario that China becomes too powerful, and China and the United States conspire to establish a “G2” (group of two) materialise, Singapore will have no strategic space, much less the bridging role that it has used to play between the two countries. By this logic, if Singapore wants to maintain its strategic significance, it must invite the United States to contain China. Singapore does not want a powerful China, and would prefer a China under the control of the United States.

Third, the hard-liners speculated that it would be a nightmare for Singapore if China controls the South China Sea. Such a scenario implies expelling the United [End Page 18] States from the region so that China would be able to gain control of the Strait of Malacca militarily, thus rendering Singapore to come under the sway of China without American protection. Currently, however, the United States’ control of the Strait of Malacca presents a major threat to China’s national security. Singapore plays a part in contributing to the threat as it allows the United States to use its Changi Base to control the Malacca and Lombok Straits, which are vital shipping lanes for China’s maritime trade. To the hard-liners, the military support that Singapore had given to the United States demonstrates its pro-US and anti-China stance, rendering its affirmation of friendship to China all but hypocrisy. Following the NAM incident, hard-liners, such as Jin Yinan from the PLA, openly called to punish Singapore for damaging China’s interests. Online extremists perpetuated the view that the Chinese government had long recognised the “anti-Chinese” underpinnings of Singapore’s policy. According to them, China has launched a series of recent economic and strategic initiatives—including building Shanghai into a major international port; constructing the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor; building the China–Myanmar pipelines; and developing port facilities in Malaysia—that are geared towards reducing the economic and strategic significance of Singapore.51

The hard-liners had also attempted to associate Singapore’s military training in Taiwan with its intention to balance China. Rather than seeing it as a means for building Singapore’s own defence capabilities, they interpreted it as having the same nature as allowing US access to its Changi Naval Base: both are attempts to balance Chinese power. The Singapore–Taiwan military collaboration is not a simple case of Taiwan leasing land to the Singapore Armed Forces for training. The Singapore Armed Forces’ large-scale training exercises provide invaluable—and almost exclusive—opportunities for the Taiwanese military to keep up with the latest military technology and defence competence. Enhancing Taiwan’s military capabilities in this way, even indirectly and of little strategic consequence to the military balance across the Taiwan strait, harms Chinese interests.52

The hard-liners also have a different view about the nature of Singapore’s foreign policy. To the moderates, Singapore’s central strategic principle in foreign policy is great power balancing; to the assertive camp, Singapore is seen to be using other great powers to balance China; to the hard-liners, however, Singapore is seen to be instigating disputes and tensions between the great powers—the United States and China, in particular—to gain strategic advantages for itself. While the hard-liners acknowledged Singapore’s need for some balance of power between the great powers, they believed [End Page 19] that the acts of instigation, as witnessed during the Obama administration, had gone beyond the need of balance. They deduced that Singapore does not want a Sino–US conflict, nor does it favour a Sino–US accommodation, as such an outcome would establish China’s dominance in Asia. The ideal outcome for Singapore is Sino–US confrontation but short of a war. The more intense the confrontation, the more prominent Singapore’s strategic role will be. As the hard-liners stressed that Singapore is increasingly acting like a “pawn” in the US strategy of containing China, they urged China to make Singapore pay the price for severely hurting Chinese interests.53

The hard-liners and moderates are currently minority voices inside China. The dominant voice, at least for 2016, belongs to the assertive camp. Assessing the policy impact of the debates among these three camps and determining which camp dominates policymaking is thus critical. But developing reliable indicators for the relative policy impact of elite views is notoriously difficult. From interactions with diverse officials, scholars and the public, it seems that Chinese policymakers responsible for Singapore and the Asia-Pacific are torn between the moderate and the assertive views. The Chinese leadership seems to have a much deeper grasp of the nature of the China–Singapore relationship than do most scholars and citizens. Whether there is a greater inclination towards the moderate or the assertive stance in the future will depend on the evolving interaction dynamics of the relationship and the larger geopolitical trends in the region. Most of the hard-liners take refuge either in the military or in the blogosphere. They do not command policy, yet hawkish views such as those of Jin Yinan from the PLA, as discussed earlier, are receiving wide attention across various segments of Chinese society. It will not be surprising if their views gain even greater currency and prominence when Sino–Singapore tensions heighten again.


Looking ahead, managing the evolving Singapore–China relationship still presents major challenges. Although the highly successful Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation meetings in February 2017 had cleared the air and stabilised the relationship, the fundamental issues underlying the aforementioned seven major controversies are still not addressed. Each of these controversies presents significant policy challenges for Singapore.

Chinese moderates were correct in pointing out that Chinese observers’ emotions about and criticisms of Singapore in 2016 were, to varying degrees, caused by misunderstandings and misperceptions. On close scrutiny of Singapore’s diplomatic language, certain judgements, particularly the one on Singapore’s support for the arbitration ruling, do not hold water.54 But not all of the relational disruptions in 2016 can be attributed to misreading and misunderstandings. There appears to be some grounds for Singapore to assess whether the language and actions have contributed [End Page 20] to such tactical errors on the Chinese side. But it is even more important to examine the underlying strategic causes of the tensions in 2016 and assess how enduring these may be. This concluding section briefly outlines the major challenges for Singapore’s China policy in the future.

First, if one has to identify a single cause of the bilateral tensions in 2016, the South China Sea issue is it. The correlation between tensions in the South China Sea and volatility in the Singapore–China relationship is all too apparent. The South China Sea disputes involve complex, long-standing issues with no plausible final resolution in sight. This was the case when the principal contention centred on sovereignty and maritime disputes between China and Southeast Asian claimant states. It is even true, as the contention has escalated into a geopolitical contest between China and the United States, with higher strategic stakes and more risk of incidents and conflicts.

At the height of the tensions in 2016, some voices within China’s assertive camp laid down two bottom lines concerning Singapore’s position on the South China Sea: first, that it must not intervene in the disputes between China and other claimant states; second, that it must not choose sides between China and America. These observers acknowledged the consistency of Singapore’s position on the South China Sea over the past few decades—a point that Singaporean officials often take great pains to emphasise to their Chinese counterparts. But, while Singapore sees such consistency as a virtue, many Chinese see it as a problem. They demand that Singapore adjust to the changing circumstances.55 The chain of events in 2016 had shown how difficult it was for Singapore’s diplomacy to meet Chinese expectations. As periodic tensions in the South China Sea are likely to persist in the future, that will greatly require Singapore to pursue a more sophisticated diplomacy.

Second, managing the trilateral relationship with both China and the United States presents even greater challenges, as the Sino–US relationship and the simmering strategic rivalry between them will define the geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific region in this century. Many Chinese elites demanded that Singapore refrain from taking sides between Beijing and Washington. With an expansive and sometimes elusive definition of “taking sides”, they concluded in 2016 that Singapore had already taken the US side.

This is not a problem unique to Singapore. Most countries across the region, including major US allies such as Australia and South Korea, are finding this balancing act increasingly difficult to perform. It requires the delicate condition of a Sino–US relationship that is characterised by neither confrontation nor harmony. A confrontational relationship between Beijing and Washington, which is always a possibility, will compel both countries to demand unambiguous support from regional countries. A harmonious relationship between them, which is inconceivable for now, will imply a US–China condominium in Asia, thereby rendering strategic choices of regional countries [End Page 21] meaningless. But maintaining Sino–US relations deemed neither too bad nor too good is by no means easy to achieve. Singapore has little influence over the development of Sino–US relations, and will need to adjust to and live with whatever outcome pertains. The smaller the manoeuvring space for balancing Singapore’s relationship with China and the United States, the greater the pressure it will face from both powers to take sides.

Third, policy towards ASEAN remains manageable at present but may become challenging in the future. China’s declaratory support for ASEAN unity and centrality in East Asian cooperation aligns with Singapore’s position. However, should China decide that a divided ASEAN, or even its collapse, better serves its interests than ASEAN unity and centrality, Singapore will find itself at extreme loggerheads with China, since it regards ASEAN unity as fundamental to its own national interests.56 This dynamic has already partially manifested over the last few years, prompting some Singapore elites to claim that China was attempting to divide ASEAN over the South China Sea issue, as discussed earlier. China’s view of ASEAN’s role in the region will depend on the evolving regional geopolitical trends in the future and Beijing’s assessment of ASEAN’s response.

Fourth, Singapore will soon need to confront the Chinese expectation to cease its military ties with Taiwan. Judging from Beijing’s handling of the Terrex vehicles incident, analysts from the assertive camp were wrong to speculate that this was China’s deliberate coercion against Singapore’s military training in Taiwan when the pro-independence DPP is in power. Rather than escalating the event, Beijing had kept it low-profile, as did Singapore. Whether Singapore’s legal argument about sovereign immunity secured the vehicles’ release is still a matter of debate, but China clearly did not intend to further damage the relationship in what was already a turbulent year. In the end, Beijing refrained from publicly demanding Singapore’s suspension of military training in Taiwan. Over the long run, however, such expectation will grow stronger, especially if Beijing comes to contemplate a final military showdown with Taipei for reunification. The eventual termination of the Starlight programme is a near certainty. Indeed, the Singapore government appears to have prepared for this eventuality by downgrading its exercises in Taiwan and by seeking training arrangements with other countries. Compared with the strategic challenge of dealing with Sino–US competition and the South China Sea tension, Singapore’s military training in Taiwan is largely a tactical issue, although certainly of major historical significance to Singapore.

Fifth, the Chinese understanding of the role of culture and race in China–Singapore relations will present uncomfortable long-term challenges for Singapore. Despite its Chinese-majority population, Singapore has a distinct national identity that emphasises multiracialism and multiculturalism; Chinese observers, however, casually blur the line of such a distinction, habitually equating Singaporeans with the [End Page 22] Chinese, and thus consider Singaporeans “one of our own” and Singapore a “kindred country” of China.57 As an independent sovereign country, Singapore is entitled to formulate foreign policy decisions based on its own national interests. Some Chinese elites, however, expect Singapore to develop special considerations for Chinese interests for cultural, racial and emotional reasons. Singapore is torn between Asian and Western traditions of diplomacy; Chinese elites want Singapore to be more “Asian” and “Chinese”.

These perceptions and misperceptions of the cultural and racial dimension of Sino–Singapore relations pervade among the Chinese public and some intellectual elites. Sophisticated policymakers are less susceptible to the most egregious kind of misunderstandings and misguided perceptions, such as the fallacy that Singapore is a “Chinese”—rather than “Chinese-majority”—country. They recognise that the Chinese people’s affection for Singapore can be a double-edged sword, and this is where the vulnerability of the relationship lies. On the one hand, Singapore’s Chinese cultural and ethnic heritage engenders a natural feeling of closeness for the Chinese people. On the other, such familiarity can raise unrealistic expectations of Singapore’s policy towards China. When these emotionally charged expectations are not met, there will likely be severe criticisms directed at Singapore.58 Indeed, this was precisely what happened to the Chinese public’s perceptions of Singapore in 2016.

Cultures and races are sensitive issues to both Singapore and China. Misunderstanding and misjudgement in this area may create gratuitous tensions in the relationship. They are not insurmountable obstacles, however. A new generation of Chinese citizens and elites who are better educated and more open-minded should be able to more accurately appreciate the sensitivities and nuances of the cultural and racial question.

Sixth, on the strategic front, adjusting Singapore’s foreign policy to the reality of China’s rising power and influence in Asia presents a deeper challenge. The Chinese demand that Singapore refrain from taking sides between Beijing and Washington is only one manifestation of the challenge during the still nascent stage of China’s rise. Singapore cannot rule out the possibility that Beijing may expect it to take China’s side when China establishes greater pre-eminence in the region. Although Beijing has not made such a demand in public, many officials and analysts have openly called on Singapore to make policy decisions in accordance with the changing circumstances. The implication is clear: China is rising, America is in relative decline, and the future of Asia, if not the world, belongs to China; Singapore must adjust its policy appropriately to this new geopolitical reality by accommodating new Chinese interests. In short, Singapore’s China policy—and by implication, its US policy—must change.

An emerging worry among some Singapore elites is that China expects regional countries not only to accept the rise of China as a geopolitical fact, which Singapore [End Page 23] is ready to do, but also to accept Chinese dominance as a normative order in Asia, which Singapore finds hard to follow.59 As yet, evidence of China’s search for such a normative order from top-level Chinese decision-making elites is scant. But influential Chinese analysts have begun to discuss Sino–Singapore relations in hierarchic terms. Thus Xue Li used the ancient Chinese maxim of “the small serves the big with wisdom; the big serves the small with humaneness” to analyse the ills in the relationship in 2016. He concluded that Singapore’s policy towards China was not wise enough while China’s policy towards Singapore needed more humaneness.60 Another observer attributed Chinese emotions about and misunderstandings of Singapore in 2016 to the traditional Chinese mindset of superiority and Sino-centrism that tends to ignore other countries’ right to pursue their own interests. Despite the so-called “century of humiliation”, such hierarchical world views still affect many Chinese today. Positioning China as a “superior country”, they tend to look down upon smaller regional countries and expect them to follow China’s lead, and lack the understanding of and sympathy towards these countries’ needs and interests. At the same time, consumed by the so-called “victim mentality” because of the “century of humiliation”, they tend to label any country that criticises and opposes China as “anti-China”.61

Hierarchy is not yet the dominant principle of Chinese foreign policy, and it is by no means certain that it will be. But it is a strong tradition in Chinese history,62 and it is an open question whether the future Chinese leadership would be able to resist the temptation to establish a normative hierarchy in Asia in tandem with the material hierarchy currently in formation. Singapore, along with other regional countries that are all “small” relative to China, will need to ponder over this uncomfortable question for a long time to come.

On a final note, Singapore will also encounter discomfort when Chinese elites question the quality of its leadership. In any other country where leadership qualities fluctuate from time to time, such a question should not have arisen in the first place. But Chinese elites’ high expectation of the Singapore leadership is built upon their admiration for Lee Kuan Yew and his pivotal role in ushering in a golden era of the Sino–Singapore relationship. Some argued that although times have changed, Singapore’s China policy remains trapped by modalities of the Lee Kuan Yew era. A deep understanding of Chinese culture, diplomatic skills in approaching Beijing, friendship with Chinese leaders—these were all the impressive qualities of Lee’s China policy. It is time, Chinese elites argued, for Singapore to develop a new China policy for the [End Page 24] post-Lee Kuan Yew era, by paying special attention to Chinese culture and building new friendships with Chinese leaders.63

Such views among Chinese scholars may not be representative of Beijing’s official thinking. Some policymakers, while recognising Lee Kuan Yew’s significance, do not agree that his passing portends trouble in the relationship. It is a loss to the relationship, to be sure, but by no means irremediable. It is far from true that without Lee Kuan Yew the relationship cannot be maintained or even better developed. The key to steering and improving the relationship in the future lies in both countries’ recognition of the changing conditions and the need to develop the relationship based on those conditions. Singapore’s policy in 2016 gives China the impression that it sees no need to adjust its policy even in the face of changing realities.64 China’s admiration of the quality of the Singapore leadership is generated by historical circumstances and may ultimately fade away. In its place will be a more enduring expectation of Singapore’s adjustment of its policies according to the new realities.

Zhang Feng

Zhang Feng ( is Fellow in the Department of International Relations at the Australian National University’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs and Adjunct Professor at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in China. He obtained his PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. His research interests include Chinese foreign and security policy, Asia-Pacific security politics and international relations in East Asian history.


This article was completed when the author was a visiting research fellow at the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore between January and June 2017. The author would like to express his gratitude to colleagues in the institute, especially Professor Zheng Yongnian, for their warm support and assistance. This article has also benefited from conversations with both Chinese and Singaporean foreign ministry officials, as well as scholars and analysts in major research institutions in Singapore. The author would also like to thank the two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments. [End Page 25]


1. Chua Mui Hoong, “3 Myths about Singapore–China Ties”, The Straits Times, 21 May 2017, at <> [26 May 2017].

2. For a recent study on the diverging views between China and Singapore, see Chong Ja Ian, “Diverging Paths? Singapore–China Relations and the East Asian Maritime Domain”, Maritime Awareness Project, 26 April 2017, at <> [26 May 2017].

3. Prime Minister’s Office of Singapore, “PM Lee Hsien Loong at the 8th S. Rajaratnam Lecture on 27 November 2015”, Singapore, 27 November 2015, at <> [5 April 2017].

4. Author’s interview with a Chinese diplomat in Singapore, November 2016.

5. Geoff Dyer, “US Steps Up South China Sea Surveillance”, The Financial Times, 8 December 2015.

6. Author’s interview with a Chinese diplomat in Singapore, November 2016.

7. Prime Minister’s Office of Singapore, “PM Lee Hsien Loong’s Interview with Wall Street Journal (WSJ) on 29 March 2016”, 29 March 2016, at <> [1 June 2017].

8. Jermyn Chow, “China Responds to Singapore Diplomats’ Remarks on South China Sea”, The Straits Times, 28 April 2016, at <> [5 April 2017].

9. Xue Li, “Zhong Xin guanxi jinru fansi yu tiaoshi qi” (Sino–Singapore Relationship Enters a Period of Reflection and Adjustment), FT Chinese, 24 January 2017, at <> [5 April 2017].

10. Prashanth Parameswaran, “What Really Happened at the ASEAN–China Special Kunming Meeting”, The Diplomat, 21 June 2016, at <> [5 April 2017]. Parameswaran noted that China proposed a 10-point consensus statement during the Yuxi meeting and wanted all ASEAN member states to agree to it.

11. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Singapore, “MFA Press Statement: Special ASEAN–China Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Kunming, Yunnan Province, China, 13–14 June 2016”, 14 June 2016, at <> [5 April 2017].

12. Xue, “Zhong Xin guanxi jinru fansi yu tiaoshi qi” (Sino–Singapore Relationship Enters a Period of Reflection and Adjustment); Xue Li, “Xinjiapo weihe zai Nanhai wenti shang xuanbianzhan?” (Why Is Singapore Taking Sides over the South China Sea Issue?), FT Chinese, 19 August 2016, at <> [5 April 2017].

13. Prime Minister’s Office of Singapore, “PM Lee Hsien Loong’s Dialogue at US Chamber of Commerce/US–ASEAN Business Council”, 1 August 2016, at <> [5 April 2017].

14. Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s remarks were about the preference of small states for the rule of law to prevail, as is clear from the context of his remarks.

15. Xue, “Xinjiapo weihe zai Nanhai wenti shang xuanbianzhan?” (Why Is Singapore Taking Sides over the South China Sea Issue?).

16. Prime Minister’s Office of Singapore, “PM Lee Hsien Loong’s Dialogue”.

17. Author’s interview with a Chinese official in Singapore, November 2016.

18. Walter Sim, “Singapore Welcomes a More Active Japan in Region: PM Lee”, The Straits Times, 29 September 2016, at <> [5 April 2017].

19. Prime Minister’s Office of Singapore, “PM Lee Hsien Loong at the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Paulownia Flowers Presentation Ceremony at the Akasaka State Guest House in Tokyo, Japan”, 28 September 2016, at <> [5 April 2017].

20. Author’s interview with a Chinese scholar in Singapore, February 2017.

21. Ian Bremmer, “Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong on the US Election, Free Trade and Why Government Isn’t a Startup”, Time, 26 October 2016, at <> [6 April 2017].

22. Kor Kian Beng and Chong Koh Ping, “Other Countries also Wanted NAM Document Updated”, The Straits Times, 29 September 2016, at <> [6 April 2017].

23. Zhang Feng, “Start of China’s Coercive Diplomacy towards Singapore”, The Straits Times, 6 October 2016, at <> [6 April 2017].

24. Hutuyanbo, “Nanhai shui tai shen, Xinjiapo ni jiu buyao xia jiaohuo le” (The South China Sea Water Is Too Deep, Singapore Should Not Get Embroiled), Xiakedao, 29 September 2016, at <> [6 April 2017].

25. Tencent News, “Jin Yinan: bixu rang Xinjiapo wei sunhai Zhongguo liyi fuchu daijia” (Jin Yinan: Singapore Must Pay the Price for Harming Chinese Interests), 1 October 2016, at <> [6 April 2017].

26. Zheng Wei, “Zenme jiejue zhuangjiache wenti? Wenwen Li Guangyao ba? (How to Solve the Armed Vehicles Issue? Ask Lee Kuan Yew), 10 January 2017, at <> [6 April 2017].

27. Greg Torode and Marius Zaharia, “Beijing Warns Against Taiwan Ties as Singapore Tries to Free Troop Carriers in Hong Kong”, Reuters, 25 November 2016, at <> [6 April 2017].

28. Chong Zi Liang, “Parliament: Detention of Terrexes Against International Law, S’pore Looks Forward to Their Return, Says Ng Eng Hen”, The Straits Times, 9 January 2017, at <> [6 April 2017].

29. Xue, “Zhong Xin guanxi jinru fansi yu tiaoshi qi” (Sino–Singapore Relationship Enters a Period of Reflection and Adjustment).

30. Ibid.

31. Cao Xin, “Zhong Xin fenqi bujinjin shi renshi wenti” (China–Singapore Disagreements Are Not Just an Issue of Perception), FT Chinese, 10 October 2016, at <> [6 April 2017].

32. Shan Renping, “Zhongguo ying tiliang Xinjiapo, ye yao huachu dixian” (China Should Understand Singapore but Must also Draw a Bottom Line), Global Times, 4 August 2016, at <> [6 April 2017].

33. Xue, “Xinjiapo weihe zai Nanhai wenti shang xuanbianzhan?” (Why Is Singapore Taking Sides over the South China Sea Issue?).

34. Ibid.

35. Zheng, “Zenme jiejue zhuangjiache wenti?” (How to Solve the Armed Vehicles Issue?).

36. Kefu, “Sike Nanhai: Xinjiapo zhishi zai xia ta meiyou xiawan de qi” (Stubborness over the South China Sea: Singapore Is Only Playing the Game It Has Not Finished), 1 October 2016, at <> [7 April 2017].

37. Qianliyan, “Zai Zhongguo pengle jige dingzi hou, Xinjiapo sihu qingxing dian le” (After Several Setbacks in China, Singapore Seems More Clear-headed Now), Xiakedao, 23 January 2017, at <> [7 April 2017]. Xiakedao is a popular Wechat public account run by the employees of the People’s Daily. See also Bianyizu, “Haizai jiaoju! Xinjiapo dui Zhongguo zuo le duoshao quedeshi?” (Still Disturbing the Situation! How Many Wicked Deeds Has Singapore Done to China?), 6 August 2016, at <> [7 April 2017].

38. Xue, “Zhong Xin guanxi jinru fansi yu tiaoshi qi” (Sino–Singapore Relationship Enters a Period of Reflection and Adjustment).

39. Zhao Lingmin, “Zhongguoren weishenme buxihuan Xinjiapo” (Why Do the Chinese Not Like Singapore?), FT Chinese, 23 August 2016, at <> [7 April 2017].

40. Tencent News, “Jin Yinan”; Chen Jiulin, “Xinjiapo zai Nanhai wenti shang yi zhandui Riben” (Singapore Has Already Taken Its Side with Japan on the South China Sea Issue), 30 September 2016, at <> [7 April 2017]; Zhanhao, “Tiantian yin Zhongguo, Xinjiapo weisha nencimao?” (Defaming China Everyday, Why Is Singapore So Mean?), 1 October 2016, at <> [7 April 2017].

41. Zheng, “Zenme jiejue zhuangjiache wenti?” (How to Solve the Armed Vehicles Issue?).

42. Zhu Feng, “Zhongguo de Nanhai xintai xu jingdeqi ‘Xinjiapo kaoyan’” (China’s South China Sea Mindset Must Withstand the “Singapore Test”), FT Chinese, 4 October 2016, at <> [7 April 2017].

43. For Lee’s speech, see Prime Minister’s Office of Singapore, “PM Lee Hsien Loong at the Special Session of the Nikkei International Conference on the Future of Asia”, Tokyo, 29 September 2016, at <> [7 April 2017].

44. Zhao, “Zhongguoren weishenme buxihuan Xinjiapo” (Why Do the Chinese Not Like Singapore?).

45. Ibid.

46. Song Wei, “Qingxu waijiao sunhai Zhongguo Nanhai quanyi” (Emotional Diplomacy Harms China’s South China Sea Interests), 4 October 2016, at <> [8 April 2017].

47. Cao, “Zhong Xin fenqi bujinjin shi renshi wenti” (China–Singapore Disagreements Are Not Just an Issue of Perception).

48. Author’s interview with a Chinese scholar in Beijing, October 2016.

49. Yang Guangbin, “Xinjiapo yiwei ‘bangding Meiguo’ shi zhanlue wupan” (Singapore’s Dogmatic Binding with the United States Is a Strategic Misjudgement), Global Times, 20 October 2016, at <> [7 April 2017].

50. Zhanhao, “Tiantian yin Zhongguo, Xinjiapo weisha nencimao?” (Defaming China Everyday, Why Is Singapore So Mean?); Bianyizu, “Haizai jiaoju!” (Still Disturbing the Situation!); Chen, “Xinjiapo zai Nanhai wenti shang yi zhandui Riben” (China–Singapore Disagreements Are Not Just an Issue of Perception); Tencent News, “Jin Yinan” (Jin Yinan).

51. Anonymous, “Xinjiapo Lishi fuzi fengkuang fanmu, mudi jiushi yao zurao Zhongguo qiangda qilai” (Singapore’s Lees Have Gone Crazy in Opposing China, With the Purpose of Preventing China from Becoming Strong), 28 September 2016, at <> [8 April 2017].

52. Qianliyan, “Xinjiapo gei Taiwan yun junhuo, jieguo zai Xianggang bei kouxia le” (Singapore Sends Armaments to Taiwan, But They Were Seized in Hong Kong), Xiakedao, 26 November 2016, at <> [8 April 2017].

53. Tencent News, “Jin Yinan” (Jin Yinan).

54. Zhao, “Zhongguoren weishenme buxihuan Xinjiapo” (Why Do the Chinese Not Like Singapore?).

55. Hutuyanbo, “Nanhai shui tai shen, Xinjiapo ni jiu buyao xia jiaohuo le” (The South China Sea Water Is Too Deep, Singapore Should Not Get Embroiled).

56. Tommy Koh, “China’s Perception of Singapore: 4 Areas of Misunderstanding”, The Straits Times, 21 October 2016, at <> [27 May 2017].

57. Qianliyan, “Zai Zhongguo pengle jige dingzi hou, Xinjiapo sihu qingxing dian le” (After Several Setbacks in China, Singapore Seems More Clear-headed Now).

58. Author’s interview with a Chinese official in Singapore, February 2017.

59. See Bilahari Kausikan, “Asia in the Trump Era: From Pivot to Peril?” Foreign Affairs 96, no. 3 (May/June 2017): 146–53.

60. Xue, “Zhong Xin guanxi jinru fansi yu tiaoshi qi” (Sino–Singapore Relationship Enters a Period of Reflection and Adjustment).

61. Zhao, “Zhongguoren weishenme buxihuan xinjiapo” (Why Do the Chinese Not Like Singapore?).

62. See Zhang Feng, Chinese Hegemony: Grand Strategy and International Institutions in East Asian History (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015).

63. Xue, “Zhong Xin guanxi jinru fansi yu tiaoshi qi” (Sino–Singapore Relationship Enters a Period of Reflection and Adjustment).

64. Author’s interview with a Chinese official in Singapore, February 2017.

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