TL;DR – No cause for panic though.
China recently hosted a big party. They organised the first One Belt One Road (OBOR) Forum. It was a massive effort to get more countries and international organisations committed to China’s OBOR initiative.
What’s this OBOR initiative?
China’s ambitious project advancing globalisation
The OBOR is China’s ambitious project to improve connectivity and cooperation between China and other nations in Europe and Asia. It comprises two main components: the land-based Silk Road Economic Belt (SREB)and the oceangoing Maritime Silk Road (MSR).
It was unveiled in September and October of 2013. The whole initiative is expected to span at least 65 nations. The total investment required to complete this ambitious project is estimated to be between USD4 trillion and USD8 trillion. All that money will go into massive infrastructural developments, mostly around transport and energy: roads, bridges, gas pipelines, ports, railways, and power plants.
Sounds great, why isn’t Singapore involved?
First things first, Singapore IS involved. Singapore and China are working on the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative (CCI). The CCI was first discussed when PM Lee met President Xi Jinping in Beijing in 2014. It was launched by the two leaders during President Xi’s State Visit to Singapore in November 2015.
Why is that important?
Because the CCI has been designated a key priority demonstration project of the OBOR initiative. In other words, as early as November 2015, Singapore has already been working on a key project of OBOR initiative since November 2015. In a sense, that means that not only is Singapore involved in the OBOR initiative, we have had a head start over other countries.
So why wasn’t PM Lee at the OBOR Forum?
PM Lee wasn’t at the OBOR Forum. It seems like he wasn’t invited. Some people wonder if that is because China is somehow upset with Singapore. Maybe China is still peeved that Singapore conducted military exercises in Taiwan. Can someone say Terrex?
Let’s not panic though.
Remember that the OBOR initiative is expected to involve at least 65 countries (aka the OBOR countries)? But only 20 head of states attended the OBOR Forum. In other words, the leaders of 45 OBOR countries did not attend the OBOR Forum.
Let’s take a closer look at the group of nations that sent their leaders to the OBOR Forum and the group that didn’t. Of those that attended, their nations have an average GDP per capita of about USD14,700. Comparatively, of those that didn’t attend, their nations have an average GDP per capita of about USD25,000.
So… perhaps it’s not all that strange that PM Lee didn’t attend the OBOR Forum. After all, leaders of less than a third of the OBOR countries attended the OBOR forum. And Singapore is more like those that didn’t attend than those that did. At least in terms of GDP per capita.
In addition, back to back with the OBOR forum in Beijing was a visit by someone touted to be the man to watch in China, Zhao Leji. Although hosted by DPM Teo, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also spared some time to meet with Zhao.
Maybe because no need?
On a more serious note, perhaps the reason that PM Lee didn’t attend was because both China and Singapore didn’t see the need for him to be there.
One of the aims of the OBOR Forum was to convince the attendees to sign a joint communiqué endorsing its economic and diplomatic positions. Perhaps China felt that they can already count on Singapore’s support without needing us to sign a communique.
How can China be so certain of our friendship and support? Well, the leaders of Singapore and China meet regularly.
PM Lee and President Xi have met each other numerous times. Other leaders of the two nations meet very regularly too. DPM Teo met China’s Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli as recently as February 2017 at the Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation (JCBC). At that meeting, Vice-Premier Zhang called the Singapore ministers who attended the meeting old friends, good friends and nee friends (老朋友，好朋友，新朋友). We had also written about this here.
Given the deep and long standing friendship between the two nations, perhaps China felt that they won’t need to convince PM Lee to support their efforts to promote globalisation and international trade. They know they can depend on us. We have committed to helping China make the OBOR initiative a success. And what we have committed, we will deliver. Our word is our bond.
Also, another aim of the forum was to get Chinese investments abroad and encourage Chinese companies to go overseas. In that respect, this forum wasn’t directly relevant to Singapore because we really don’t need Chinese investments for infrastructural development. We have enough money of our own to do that.
Put these together, there really isn’t a need for PM Lee to be at the forum. So it should not be too surprising that PM Lee didn’t attend the OBOR forum. As a good friend, there’s no need to feel insecure. We don’t need to hoard our friend’s time all to ourselves. We should let our friend have the time and space to do what she needs to do.
Editor’s note – This is quite worth a read.