Singapore’s ambassador to China and the editor-in-chief of nationalistic Chinese tabloid Global Times are caught up in a heated row over a report on the city state’s role in the South China Sea dispute.
The Global Times, owned by Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, had reported last Wednesday that Singapore wanted to include the Philippines’ position on an international arbitration ruling on claims to the South China Sea during the Non-Aligned Movement summit held in Venezuela earlier this month.
But Stanley Loh, Singapore’s envoy to China, rejected Global Times’ report, issuing two open letters to the newspaper’s editor-in-chief Hu Xijin this week.
Here is the timeline of events leading up to the row.
By Singapore’s account, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations had collectively requested updates to paragraphs in the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Final Document to reflect the consensus of all 10 Asean member states.
Laos – as chair of the Asean grouping – submitted the collective request through a formal letter to former NAM chair Iran, which in turn circulated the updates to all NAM members on July 29.
The draft of the NAM Final Outcome Document was issued to member countries.
Laos wrote to Venezuela to put on record Asean’s collective reservation to a paragraph related to the South China Sea in the document. In the letter, Laos said Asean was not in a position to accept that paragraph.
Compared with the South China Sea paragraph in the 2012 NAM Tehran Summit Final Document, the updates provided by Laos included “concerns expressed by some ministers/leaders on the land reclamations and escalation of activities in the area, including the increased presence of military assets and the possibility of further militarization of outposts in the South China Sea.”
Global Times published its report headlined “NAM Summit closes, Singapore brings up South China Sea arbitration despite opposition”.
According to the report, the Singapore delegation tried to add to the summit’s final document, an endorsement of an international tribunal’s ruling on claims to the South China Sea.
Citing unnamed sources who attended the NAM meetings, the report said representatives of the Singapore delegation grew “exasperated” and responded with inappropriate remarks to other delegations opposed to including the endorsement.
“During and after the meeting of foreign ministers, Singapore continued to stir up problems and openly challenged the chair nation Venezuela’s ruling, which again drew clear opposition from many countries,” the report stated.
“To satisfy its own interests, Singapore had been pestering [other states] during negotiation and meetings. It dragged meetings into late night many times, which caused discontent among other countries.”
Singapore’s ambassador to China, Stanley Loh, refuted the Global Times report in an open letter to Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Global Times, saying the report “attributed actions and words to Singapore which are false and unfounded”.
Loh said Singapore did not raise the South China Sea issue or the arbitration ruling at the summit. Rather, the proposal to update the NAM declaration’s Southeast Asia paragraphs, including those referring to the South China Sea, reflected the consensus position of all 10 Asean members, the ambassador said.
“We are disappointed that an established newspaper published this irresponsible report replete with fabrications and unfounded allegations with no regard for the facts,” Loh wrote in his letter.
In response to Loh, Hu posted an open letter to the ambassador on Chinese microblogging platform weibo, in which he insisted that the Global Times’ sources were “serious and reliable” and the report reflected the truth.
“As an ambassador based in China, you were probably not able to attend the meeting in Venezuela nor be a witness,” Hu said in his letter. “Maybe your government asked you to say that.”
He also expressed “disappointment” towards Singapore’s position in the South China Sea dispute.
“Look at how most Asean countries deal with the sensitive South China Sea ruling in a balanced way,” he wrote. “I think Singapore should feel ashamed when you tried to trip up China, your largest trading partner.”
The same day, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang, when asked about the Global Times report, said an “individual nation” had insisted on including South China Sea issues in the NAM final document.
“The facts are clear,” Geng said. “Some individual state(s) insisted to include one-sided content related to South China Sea in the final document, but it was not supported by most NAM member countries. China hopes related state(s) respect China’s position and the agreement reached with Asean countries.”
In a second letter to Hu, Loh reiterated that the Global Times report was inaccurate and that the proposal to update the document was a collective request made by the Asean members.
“Global Times did not attend the meetings and had to rely on information from unnamed sources,” Loh said. “In contrast, Singapore is a member of NAM and had participated in all the proceedings at the Summit.”