Chinese politburo member Yang Jiechi, pictured here, on February 28, 2020. Mr Yang is the most senior Chinese official to visit Singapore this year. (Photo: Kimimasa Mayama / various sources / AFP)

Yang Jiechi’s Singapore Visit: Seeking Strategic Space

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China appears to have embarked on a new round of charm offensive. Yang Jiechi, who is a Politburo Member and Director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, is visiting Singapore and South Korea this week. While Singapore looks forward to consolidating its ties with China, it seeks to do the same with other key players in the region.

Yang Jiechi, China’s top diplomat has embarked on a twin visit to Singapore and South Korea this week. The 19-20 August visit to Singapore is particularly significant, when examined from the bilateral and regional perspective.

From the bilateral perspective, the visit is important for a number of reasons. First, this is Mr Yang’s first visit to Singapore in his capacity as a Politburo member and Director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs. He assumed the positions in 2017 and 2018 respectively. The office that Mr Yang heads was created in 2018. It outranks its predecessor, the Central Leading Small Group on Foreign Affairs, in that it gives the Chinese Communist Party more authority over how China’s foreign policy is conducted. Although Mr Yang is technically the director of the office, he reports directly to General Secretary and President Xi Jinping who is the head of the Central Commission. In this sense, it is not unreasonable to conclude that Mr Yang visit to Singapore and South Korea has the personal endorsement and imprimatur of Mr Xi.

Second, Yang Jiechi is the most senior Chinese official to visit Singapore this year. He is more senior than Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who is concurrently State Councilor. Mr Wang last visited Singapore in August 2018, for a bilateral visit and to attend related meetings with ASEAN Foreign Ministers when Singapore was chair of the grouping that year. But compared to Mr Wang Yi, Mr Yang is less active on the foreign policy front. This is understandable,  as he is not the foreign minister. When he travels, it is usually to carry out a specific task or perform a particular role. Mr Yang has undertaken three other foreign trips this year. In January, he was in Berlin as Mr Xi’s special representative to attend the Libya Conference to discuss the future of the fractured country. The following month, he was in Japan to participate in a high-level political dialogue between China and Japan, and to discuss Mr Xi’s state visit to Japan that was originally scheduled for April. In late February to early March, Mr Yang visited Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to re-affirm China’s ties with its Central Asian neighbours.

This time round, Singapore is the only ASEAN country that Mr Yang is visiting. This underscores the importance that China has accorded to the visit. The other ASEAN country that Mr Yang has visited in his current capacity as Politburo member and Director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs is Myanmar in January 2020. Then, he had accompanied Mr Xi on a state visit.

Third, Yang Jiechi’s visit is intended to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Singapore-China relations. The Covid-19 pandemic has opened up areas of cooperation between the two countries. In the initial stages, the Singapore Red Cross extended financial aid to China and the Singapore government provided medical equipment, supplies and test-kits as well. China reciprocated in kind with face masks. The two countries further coordinated closely to facilitate the return of their nationals to their home country. They have also re-affirmed the importance of strengthening connectivity between the two countries and the rest of the world on multiple fronts such as supply chains, finance, infrastructure and flight connectivity during this difficult period.

There is a view that China is making a concerted effort to reach out to other countries that are seen to be friendlier, such as Singapore and South Korea, in an effort to draw them closer. While this may be true, Singapore and South Korea will also be assessing the evolving regional and international dynamics through the lens of their own national interest.

Following similar arrangements with South Korea and Germany, Singapore is among the first few countries that China has established green channels with to promote bilateral essential business and official travel. The two countries have further agreed to deepen collaboration on public health, including developing Covid-19 vaccines, treatments and diagnostics. In this regard, Mr Yang visit caps months of substantive collaboration between the two countries. Later this year, Singapore is expected to host China’s Executive Vice Premier and Politburo Standing Committee member Han Zheng when he attends the Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation, the highest-level mechanism overseeing cooperation between the two countries.

From the regional perspective, Mr Yang’s visit is occurring at a time when China’s relations with other key countries especially Australia, India and the United States have run into intractable difficulties. There is a view that China is making a concerted effort to reach out to other countries that are seen to be friendlier, such as Singapore and South Korea, in an effort to draw them closer. While this may be true, Singapore and South Korea will also be assessing the evolving regional and international dynamics through the lens of their own national interest. From the perspective of Singapore, in particular, it seeks stable and substantive relations with China just as it does with other key Indo-Pacific powers such as Australia, India, Japan, South Korea and the United States.

In other words, Singapore wants to be friends with all and to engage them while trying not to take or be seen as taking the sides of any one power against the other. The room for small states to manoeuvre has certainly become much more difficult and complex especially with the intensified competition between the United States and China on virtually every front. Yet, it remains in the interest of Singapore to work with other like-minded countries to not only maintain, but also try to broaden this strategic space for adroit manoeuvres.

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