Foreign Relations

Southeast Asian Affairs, January 1, 1998 | Go to article overview

Foreign Relations


Singapore's foreign relations with the major powers for the year in review generally went quite well. Ties with the People's Republic of China (PRC) reached a new high when Chinese Premier Li Peng visited Singapore with a large entourage in August. This was the first official visit by a Chinese leader following the establishment of diplomatic ties between the two states in November 1990. The relationship is strongly undergirded by the regular exchange of visits between officials, joint development projects, and an emphasis on non-Western values in general and in international discourse. The announcement by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong on the need for a Chinese-proficient élite domestically during his National Day Rally speech is likely to lead to more cultural and educational exchanges with China in the future.

The relationship with Japan continued to remain favourable. The visit of Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and his delivery of a seminal lecture outlining Japan's new Hashimoto Doctrine were significant developments. That Singapore was chosen for the lecture is an acknowledgement of the city-state as a suitable and friendly place. Many of the other countries in the region, on the other hand, had previously witnessed nationalistic anti-Japanese rhetoric.

In Southeast Asia, where much of Singapore's foreign relations is directed towards ASEAN, there were some problems. The ASEAN policy of constructive engagement with Myanmar, long championed by Thailand and Singapore, ran into some difficulties. The most pronounced of these difficulties was the decision by the European Union (EU) to indefinitely postpone an ASEAN-EU meeting in Bangkok after it was learnt that the host country, Thailand, had invited Myanmar to attend the meeting. The EU, which had suspended all high-level contacts with Myanmar in protest against the suppression of human rights and the political opposition, objected to Myanmar attending.

Another hitch for ASEAN was the violent seizure of power by Cambodia's Hun Sen against his co-Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh. Hun Sen accused Ranariddh of colluding with and smuggling Khmer Rouge soldiers into Phnom Penh to tilt the domestic balance of power in the latter's favour. Hun Sen launched a swift and bloody coup, effectively deposing Ranariddh and forcing him into political exile. The year had already been a memorable one for Cambodia, with Pol Pot being ousted from party leadership in a factional dispute within the Khmer Rouge. Hun Sen's coup brought the country to the threshold of anarchy again after the United Nations and the international community had painstakingly nurtured Cambodia into seeming political health after the May 1993 election.

Within ASEAN, there were internal differences over how to deal with the Cambodian situation. Malaysia, as host of the thirtieth anniversary celebrations of ASEAN, was clearly in favour of admitting Cambodia into the fold to realize the vision of an ASEAN-10. Indonesia was agreeable to this proposition but for a different reason --- that the international community had no right to interfere in the domestic politics of other countries --- a deeply cherished ASEAN principle. Singapore, on the other hand, was clearly reluctant to endorse a violent seizure of power for fear that it would set a political precedent --- a position that was reiterated by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Edinburgh in October. In the midst of the political crisis in Cambodia, many donor countries suspended their aid programmes until the outcome of a peaceful general election, scheduled to be held in 1998. Hun Sen, in the mean time, was de facto Prime Minister and insisted that Ranariddh be tried for treason on his return from exile. How this conflict is resolved will certainly have an impact on the country's membership in ASEAN.

In 1997 Singapore had a series of hiccups in its bilateral relations with Malaysia. …

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