Bilahari Kausikan, a former permanent secretary at Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, made unwarranted criticism of China at a conference on Chinese public diplomacy late June. He said that China is trying to use covert "influence operations" to manipulate other countries and spread its sway, which Singapore has not been spared and Singaporeans need to be wary. He deliberated on ways China expands its influence, such as breaking the principle of non-interference in others' internal affairs and suborning decision-makers or public opinion in the countries.
Kausikan is known for his outspoken nature. He not only triggers debates in Singaporean diplomatic circles, but often shows his hard-line stance and unnecessary concerns over China. His latest remarks about China are disrupting Sino-Singaporean relations that have been committed to finding common ground.
Essentially, Kausikan's words are biased with many unfounded accusations. Non-interference is one of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence that have been put forward by China and accepted internationally. China used to and will always adhere to the principle even though its overseas interests are expanding.
As a retired diplomat, Kausikan has taken public diplomacy in a wrong way. Public diplomacy is defined as government communicating with and influencing the public in other countries through cultural exchange and communication programs to improve its national image and international influence, and promote its national interests.
It is all within the domain of public diplomacy that the Chinese government advances cultural and people-to-people exchange with Singapore. Through public diplomacy, a country can showcase its national image to the outside world and meanwhile gradually influence the public or even decision-makers in other countries. This is two-way influence. For instance, Singapore has influenced China in many aspects. Its reputation as a garden city has been widely known in China and its urban development model is followed by many Chinese cities.
Kausikan accusing China indicates that there are still creases in Singapore's policy on China and bilateral relations.
As Europe is fraught with governance problems, the Trump administration continues advancing its "America First" policy and multiple geopolitical centers emerge, the international landscape is witnessing uncertainties unseen since the end of the Cold War. Hence, Sino-Singaporean relations have the opportunity for sustained and stable development, but still face challenges.
China and Singapore have strategic convergence and common interests in a variety of sectors. For instance, both countries face challenges of trade protectionism. Singapore's advocacy of open and multilateral trade is bound to clash with the conservative and unilateral protectionism policy of the Trump administration. Singapore has explicitly opposed protectionism and stated the damage that the policy may cause to global trade. Meanwhile, it seeks strengthened cooperation with countries committed to globalization and multilateral trade system to maintain stability. That was the purpose of the China trip by Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in 2017.
Singapore faces more bewilderment given the changes in the international landscape, especially the emergence of multiple power centers and China-US tensions. In the complex regional and global situation, Singapore is confronted with increasing uncertainty and challenges that it can hardly grapple with. Its intimacy with Western countries and subtle approach toward China may hurt Beijing's feelings in some circumstances, as shown by Kausikan's latest criticism.
To sum up, a diplomat as influential as Kausikan should make constructive comments on bilateral relations and regional cooperation.