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Singapore caught between ASEAN, China on South China Sea

Laura Zhou
Singapore faces difficulty maintaining solid China ties

The foreign ministry has blamed an unspecified "individual nation" for stirring up tensions over the South China Sea dispute after an unusual war of words broke out between the Singaporean envoy and the editor-in-chief of an influential mainland tabloid newspaper.

The incident underscores the difficulty Singapore faces in maintaining good ties with an assertive Beijing.

Without directly naming Singapore, foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said an "individual nation" had insisted on including South China Sea issues in the final document of the recent Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit held in Venezuela on September 18.

Geng was asked to comment on the tiff that erupted between Singaporean ambassador Stanley Loh and Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of Global Times, a nationalistic tabloid.

In an open letter released on Tuesday, Loh refuted a report by the newspaper, saying that it "attributed actions and words to Singapore which are false and unfounded".

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He was referring to a report by the newspaper last Wednesday that claimed Singapore wanted to include the Philippines' position on an international arbitration ruling on claims to the South China Sea in the final summit document, but the attempt failed.

Citing anonymous sources, the report said that representatives of the Singaporean delegation grew "exasperated" and responded with inappropriate ­remarks, making "hostile attacks against nations with [a] just ­position".

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Loh said Singapore did not raise the South China Sea issue or the arbitration ruling at the summit. He said it was Laos, ­representing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) rather than Singapore alone, that submitted a letter to Venezuela saying that the views of the bloc on the sea row were not accurately reflected in the summit ­document.

"Only a very small number of NAM members outside Southeast Asia raised objections to ASEAN's updates," Loh said.

Hours later, Hu insisted that the source cited in the report was "serious and reliable".

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"As an ambassador based in China, you were probably not able to attend the meeting in Venezuela nor be a witness," Hu said in an open letter. "I think Singapore should feel ashamed when you tried to trip up China, your largest trading partner."

Singapore is not a claimant in the disputed waters, but its role as an intermediary between China and ASEAN sometimes touches a nerve with some Chinese, who question if the city state is drawing closer to the United States.

"The two nations may have different understandings especially over the sensitive South China Sea issues," said Du Jifeng, a Southeast Asian affairs specialist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "Singapore thinks it's speaking for ASEAN rather than itself, but Beijing sometimes thinks it's Singapore's stance, and that makes the bilateral relations complicated."

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