Lee's Taiwan trip tightens tension

Singaporean Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's visit to China's Taiwan Province earlier this month drew great attention and earned a rebuke from China.

Singapore, which has a predominantly Chinese society, has played a special role in the cross-Straits relationship since its establishment of diplomatic relationship with China.

Lee Kuan Yew, Senior Minister of Singapore has cultivated close ties with the top leaders across the Taiwan Straits and shuttled between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan. Admittedly, on several occasions, he has exerted critical influence over the cross-Straits relationship.

For example, in 1993 he played a major role in arranging the first-ever top-level talks between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan - the Wang-Koo Meeting - which provided a new framework for negotiations on political issues.

Until recently, Lee Kuan Yew has also expressed concern about the Taiwan question and warned that the island's pursuit of independence would have a prohibitively high cost.

Today, Lee Kuan Yew is aging and frequent travel between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan is highly unlikely. It is understandable that he would like his son, Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister-in-waiting, to also exercise important influence across the Straits in the future. In this sense, Lee's Taiwan visit can be interpreted as a response to his father's wish.

Recently, Lee Hsien Loong said he was very concerned about the Taiwan Straits security situation, and Singapore was willing to facilitate cross-Straits dialogues by hosting arrangements like the Wang-Koo Meeting.

However, the cross-Straits situation has changed dramatically because of Chen Shui-bian's stubborn insistence on independence-oriented lines and as a result Beijing has completely lost faith in him.

Against this background, Lee's offer to provide the communication channel for both sides across the Taiwan Straits obviously came at the wrong time. To some extent this reflects his failure to recognize the core interest of China and its sensitivity over the Taiwan question.

It should be pointed out that Lee's visit to Taiwan was a continuation of special relations between the island province and Singapore.

Since the early 1990s Taiwan and Singapore have maintained a close political affinity though no formal diplomatic relations exist between them.

The leaders of Singapore and Taiwan have been on good terms and often exchange visits at the high level. When Lee Teng-hui was in power, Taiwan and Singapore constantly made breakthroughs in their relationships.

In 1990, Hao Po-tsun, then "president of Executive Yuan," visited Singapore on vacation, which set the precedent for what later came to be called "vacation diplomacy." That same year both parties upgraded the level of organizations that handled bilateral relations.

Since 1993, when the Taiwan authorities raised the "go south" policy, Taiwan's dignitaries have paid many visits to Singapore and developed close personal ties through frequent contacts.

Taiwan and Singapore also have a history of strong economic ties. In 2003 bilateral trade totalled US$8.84 billion. And Singapore is the fourth largest export market and the eighth largest import market for Taiwan. Moreover, Singapore is one of the island's major sources of overseas investment and Taiwan enterprises - notably Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co Ltd and United Microelectronics Corp and pour millions of dollars into the Singapore economy.

In addition, Taiwan and Singapore have collaborated closely in terms of military exchanges. Since 1976 Taiwan has helped train military personnel for Singapore.

As for Lee Hsien Loong's reasons for travelling to Taiwan less than two month after his trip to the Chinese mainland, there is much speculation among cross-Straits ties observers.

As I see it, economic considerations play a very important role in pushing Lee Hsien Loong to rush to Taiwan despite Beijing's admonishment.

Nowadays, Taiwan and Singapore are approaching each other on the issue of free trade area, which is now high on the agenda of Taiwan and Singapore. During the visit, Lee Hsien Loong specially arranged for a meeting to entertain business people, which showed his eagerness to push for investment from Singapore and strong wish to strengthen economic links with Taiwan.

Meanwhile, the strong economic partnership between Taiwan and Singapore will no doubt help both compete with Hong Kong in the international market, which is not overlooked by Taiwan and Singapore. Since Hong Kong's return to China the advantages enjoyed because of the support of the central government have heightened the sense of crisis in Taiwan and Singapore.

What is more, Lee Hsien Loong scored political points through this low-key but high-profile visit.

The trip was intended to highlight Singaporean independence in making decisions regarding regional affairs and enhance the status of Singapore and enlarge its influence in ASEAN. From that perspective the political profits of the visit perhaps outweigh the temporary negative impact on the Sino-Singapore relations.

More importantly, the bilateral relations currently damaged can be mended by later Singaporean efforts, which is a typical characteristic of the city state's diplomacy.

Since the May 20 election Chen Shui-bian has started to adjust his strategy toward the mainland and he is sparing no efforts to further internationalize the Taiwan question. Lee Hsien Loong's visit to Taiwan, considered as a new breakthrough in Taiwan's diplomacy, is no more than an important move designed by the Taiwan authorities in the chessboard of the Straits.

Tension between China and Singapore due to the controversial visit is precisely what the Taiwan authorities expected.

In the context in which the Taiwan authorities reiterate the "go south" policy, the direction in which the relationship between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan will develop remains unclear.

Volatile cross-Straits relations, coupled with the complicated international situation leave open the possibility that similar troubled events will happen again.

However, because of China's rise and its considerable influence in Southeast Asia, the domino effect triggered by Lee Hsien Loong's Taiwan visit will not come about.

Internationally, to break out of the political framework built on the one-China stance held by most of the countries in the world would not be an easy task for Taiwan.

Source: China Daily



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