The Quad virtual summit among the leaders of India, Australia, Japan and the USA has had far-reaching reverberations. Singapore which has maintained tactical and diplomatic silence in criticizing China for a long time is now making its criticisms and reservations clear. China’s decisions and foreign policy positions have given rise to “significant” uncertainty and anxiety as countries globally assess their implications, and this is not an ideal situation for Beijing, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said. Lee was speaking in an interview with British broadcaster BBC recorded two weeks ago and aired last Sunday.
Although Singapore for the longest time has maintained cordial relations with the Chinese Communist Party at the same time keeping its deep cooperation with the USA, EU and India as well, it has never partaken in any criticisms of China. However, it looks like things are changing and they are changing pretty fast. The statement by Singapore’s Prime Minister came before Beijing on Thursday confirmed that it would move ahead with the biggest overhaul of Hong Kong’s electoral system since the city returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
The fact that the statement was critical even before the overhaul of Hong Kong’s electoral systems goes on to signal the tectonic shift in the way in which Singapore in particular and the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) in general approach China. These countries have gotten a newfound encouragement to follow an independent foreign policy with the resurgence of Quad as an institution.
The catalyst has been the reiteration of Quad allies regarding the ASEAN centrality in their Indo-Pacific world view. Recently a meeting among the Quad heads of the states took place virtually. The joint statement, which was released after the summit, especially mentioned the importance of ASEAN and reiterated its centrality. The statement read, “Promoting a free, open rules-based order, rooted in international law to advance security and prosperity and counter threats to both in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. Adding strong support for ASEAN’s unity and centrality as well as the ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific.”
The statements by Singapore’s Prime Minister make the case for the emergence of an overt critical outlook among the ASEAN member countries vis a vis Chinese Communist Party and its undeterred actions on Hong Kong. While countries like Singapore have earlier shied away from criticizing China and on the contrary heaped praises for Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party from time to time, now things seem to have taken a U-turn.
Referring to public opinion polls such as those done by American think tank the Pew Research Center that tracked sentiments towards China in various countries, he said there was “significant uncertainty and anxiety over which way China is going and whether this will be good for them”. He added, “I do not think that is in China’s interest.”
“It is understandable. China is in a new position now, and you have to set a different balance in your relationship with the world,” he said. “What the world was prepared to grant you in an earlier phase now has to be reworked, and that is quite difficult for a country to accept.” These highly eloquent and truth bombs would not have been expressed by Singapore’s PM in the era of uncertainty regarding Quad’s role in the region.
However, with the Quad taking its much-needed leadership role in the region and providing the ASEAN nations with a sense of security, these countries are finding the courage to espouse their views and ideas more freely.
When asked about which vaccine would the country prefer, he said, “We will use vaccines from any source. Vaccines do not carry a nationality. Is it good or is it no good? Does it work? If it does, then we will use it.” With this statement, Singapore has made it clear that the Chinese vaccine will be the last to be considered given its low efficacy rate.