Even in his death, Lee Kuan Yew, the late Singaporean Prime Minister, has given Taiwan one last gift: the reaffirmation of Taiwan-Singapore relations in an age of growing Chinese influence in Southeast Asia. In other words, Sino-Singapore relations will not progress further than they have. Given Singapore’s diplomatic adeptness, especially in managing its relationship with governments on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, China will not see Singapore abandon Taiwan in the near future.
The “One China” principle practiced by the People’s Republic of China limits Taiwan’s diplomatic relationship with other nations—as the policy forces China’s diplomatic allies to refrain from recognizing Taiwan as a sovereign nation. As such, countries that wish to maintain close ties with the nation without angering China must be extremely careful, and often creative, in their diplomatic strategies. And no state managed this better than Singapore and its late Prime Minister.
Lee Kuan Yew’s practical approach to diplomacy enabled the city-state to successfully navigate the murky waters of the relationship between Taiwan and China. He always maintained a close relationship with Taiwan, even after Singapore renounced formal diplomatic ties with the island in 1990. After that, Lee managed to form closer ties with mainland China—increasing business and trade. But Singapore still maintains military training grounds in Taiwan, the only military training grounds that the state has outside its borders, and has held joint exercises with the island since the early 1970s, which have continued to this day. In 2013, the two nations signed an economic partnership agreement.
Given Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation, the island, too, has to engage with other nations through informal channels, one of which is what the Taiwanese media has dubbed “funeral diplomacy.” In April 2005, then Taiwanese President Chen Shui-Bian made a high-profile visit to the Vatican—Taiwan’s only European diplomatic ally—to attend the funeral of Pope John Paul II. During the course of the event, Chen was able to interact with prominent foreign leaders—including George W. Bush—who Taiwanese presidents generally do not have access to. China boycotted the funeral in response to Chen’s attendance.
Lee Kuan Yew’s funeral is another example of this backchannel diplomacy, only this time both the Singaporean and the Taiwanese governments were mindful of China’s reaction. Taiwan’s president, Ma Ying-Jeou, was invited to Singapore as a friend of the family, and attended a family wake on March 24. He entered and left Singapore so inconspicuously that the Taiwanese public and media only learned of the visit after his return.
Perhaps Ma’s trip was intentionally under-the radar so that Taiwanese media could not slant its meaning. After all, Taiwanese media reports were responsible for the deterioration of Sino-Singapore ties after Lee Hsien Loong, current prime minister of Singapore, visited Taiwan in 2004. The news stories gave the perception that Singapore prioritized its relationship with Taiwan. China reacted by freezing meetings and transactions with Singapore overnight.
It is understandable that Ma, whose party and agenda are both pro-China and who has striven for closer ties with the Mainland, would want to keep a low profile when it comes to Singapore. Although Ma’s visit was harshly criticized as irresponsible, his low-key approach only prompted China to remind Singapore of the One China Principle, a relatively mild response signaling Singapore’s ability to successfully walk the fine line between the two nations.
But the implications of this incognito visit go further. The fact that a Taiwanese head of state entered a country that it has no diplomatic relations with is a diplomatic coup. This implicitly elevated the status of President Ma from a “regional head” in the eyes of China and the international community to the head of state that Taiwanese view him as, challenging China’s claim that Taiwan is not a sovereign nation.
Although Ma didn’t attend the state funeral on March 29, Su Tseng-Chang, the former Taiwanese Premier and Chairman of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party, Su Tseng-Chang did attend. China has long been suspicious of the pro-independence DPP, but inviting Su was a strategic move by PM Lee Hsien Loong. While Su no longer heads the DPP, he does represent the party to a certain extent, and his opinion is still influential. The invitation provided a safeguard for Singapore-Taiwan relations should the DPP win the presidential elections in Taiwan next year—a prospect that is increasingly likely.
No matter how much Singapore insists on neutrality, the city-state remains suspicious of China, and is assiduously hedging its bets. Unless China’s economic rise increases Beijing’s importance as a partner, Sino-Singapore relations will be unlikely to advance beyond the level it is at today. In fact, as China continues to be more militarily assertive in the South China Sea, Singapore and Taiwan will find each other as even more important geopolitical allies.