TL;DR – This is how we do it.
Not too long ago, nine of Singapore’s nine armoured personnel carriers (APCs) were impounded in Hong Kong. That raised speculations that China is, for whatever reasons, buay song (unhappy, upset) with Singapore. Some Singaporeans saying that it’s because of what PM Lee said about the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. They say that PM Lee shouldn’t have said those things, he should have kept his mouth shut.
We think those Singaporeans are grossly mistaken. We have our principles. We ought to stand by them. And it looks like those Singaporeans are also mistaken that China is unhappy with Singapore.
At the latest Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation (JCBC), top Chinese officials called the Singapore ministers who attended the meeting old friends, good friends, and new friends (老朋友，好朋友，新朋友).
That’s a pretty big deal.
The first-ranked Vice-Premier of China Zhang Gaoli addressed DPM Teo Chee Hean as an “old friend, good friend”.
That was also how deputy party secretary and mayor of Chongqing Zhang Guoqing addressed Mr Chan Chun Sing, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office. Just as how Minister Chan is deemed as a key member of Singapore’s next generation of leadership, Mayor Zhang is seen as a promising candidate for the “6th generation of Chinese leadership.”
Why is that such a big deal?
Professor Zhang Qingmin, professor of international relations at Beijing University, explained:
“The way China handles relationships with other countries is usually built on personal relationship and connections. We tend to shy away from talking about interests. We rather address the people we want to deal with as friends.”
Some media in China have explained that “old friend” is a term the Chinese Foreign Service uses to refer to people who have made significant contribution to developing good relationships between their country and China and have good relationships with China. Other media in China have explained that the term “old friend” is a very high accolade.
Making new friends too
If China was indeed upset with Singapore over the comments that PM Lee made about the South China Sea issues, it’s unlikely that the members of top level of China’s leadership would use such positive terms to describe their relationship with members of Singapore’s leadership. And it’s not only the more older Singaporean ministers who are being addressed by such positive terms.
Vice-Premier Zhang said:
“(all of us here are) old friends, and (we have in attendance) some new friends too… I’m especially happy to see that there are younger ministers (at the meeting), all of us are directly responsible for advancing the cooperation between China and Singapore.”
It would seem that China is keen to let the “new friends” build meaningful relationships so that they can be “old friends” too. This suggests that China isn’t all that unhappy with Singapore. Not only that, China still very much values its relationship with Singapore and wants it to continue to blossom long into the future.
So, yes. The JCBC this time round was postponed from the frigid winter of Beijing. But looking forward, it looks like the relationship between China and Singapore is still quite warm, just like this spring in Beijing.