A surprise war of words between Singapore’s ambassador to China and the editor-in-chief of a nationalistic Chinese tabloid over a report on the city state’s stand on the South China Sea underscored Beijing’s deep disappointment towards Singapore on the maritime issue, Chinese analysts said on Thursday.
The row erupted after Global Times ran a story last week claiming that Singapore insisted on including content that endorsed the Philippines’ position on an international arbitration ruling on claims to the South China Sea in the final document of the Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in Venezuela earlier this month.
The report in the English-language newspaper affiliated with Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily prompted Singapore’s ambassador to China, Stanley Loh, to issue two open letters this week to the tabloid’s editor-in-chief Hu Xijin.
Loh said the report’s suggestion that Singapore was seeking to air the issue in international forums was “false and unfounded”, insisting the move was a collective act by the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
The Chinese foreign ministry also later waded into the fray, blaming an unspecified “individual nation” for stirring up tensions over the South China Sea dispute by insisting on including South China Sea issues in the final document of the NAM summit.
Hu Bo, a researcher at Peking University’s Institute of Ocean Research, said the governments of both China and Singapore cared about saving the other’s “face” and rarely aired arguments in the open, despite major disagreements over national positions and policies. “The spat between Loh and Hu will certainly have a negative impact on Singapore’s reputation among the Chinese people,” Hu said.
Zhang Mingliang, a Southeast Asia expert at Jinan University in Guangzhou, said he was also surprised that the Singaporean envoy responded publicly to the tabloid’s report, which is know for its hawkish stance.
Xu Liping, senior researcher on Southeast Asia studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said China expected Singapore to be a neutral mediator between China and the countries of Asean, and did not want to see disputes over the South China Sea raised in a multilateral platform like the Non-Aligned Movement Summit. And that was why China was so angry over Singapore’s active moves in broaching such a sensitive topic, Xu said.
“If Singapore does not adjust its policies, I am afraid the bilateral relations will deteriorate,” Xu said. “Singapore should think twice about its security cooperation especially with the United States, and strike a better balance between China and US.”
‘Global Times didn’t have journalists at summit’, says Singapore ambassador as row escalates over South China Sea report
Yesterday, the overseas edition of People’s Daily also published an online commentary, saying Singapore “has obviously taken sides over South China Sea issues, while emphasising it does not”.
The commentary follows Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s joint press conference in Tokyo on Wednesday with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe, in which both said they had discussed the South China Sea disputes.
Lee said Singapore “does not take sides on the competing territorial claims”, but it does have “key interests to protect”.
Those interests included freedom of navigation and overflight as well as “rule-based regional and international order”.
Kyodo news agency reported that the two prime ministers agreed on the importance of the rule of law and collaboration in the international community in dealing with the situation in the South China Sea.
Additional reporting by Kristin Huang