Date
6 December 2016
At an ICJ hearing in 2007 in relation to a territorial dispute with Malaysia, Singapore presented a lot of substantial and tangible evidence based on historical facts and international law theories. Photo: United Nations
At an ICJ hearing in 2007 in relation to a territorial dispute with Malaysia, Singapore presented a lot of substantial and tangible evidence based on historical facts and international law theories. Photo: United Nations

How Singapore handles territorial rows better than China

Although Singapore and China are both governed by ethnic Chinese, the mindset, political logic and ideologies adopted by leaders of the two countries are in sharp contrast with each other, particularly over the issue of territorial disputes.

Let me give an example.

In 1979, a dispute broke out between Singapore and Malaysia over the ownership of the tiny island of Pedra Branca and the neighboring Middle Rocks and South Ledge located along the Singapore Strait. After attempts to settle it on the negotiation table had failed, Singapore took the case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

During the trial, Singapore presented a lot of substantial and tangible evidence based on historical facts and international law theories.

For instance, it argued that the Sultan of Johore didn’t voice any objection whatsoever when the British colonial administration in Singapore occupied these islands and rocks in the 1850s, suggesting that Malaysia agreed with the lawful possession of these islands by the Singaporean authorities right from the beginning.

In the end, the ICJ ruled in 2008 that the island of Pedra Branca belongs to Singapore while Malaysia has sovereignty over a couple of neighboring small islands, and the case was settled peacefully.

In contrast, when it comes to the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, the major argument presented by Beijing to support its claim is that the islands and the waters of the region have been Chinese territory “since ancient times”, without being able to provide any substantial and historically specific proof.

Nor is it able to present any logical evidence under the framework of the existing international law.

In other words, as far as territorial disputes are concerned, what Singapore adopts is a western kind of mindset that stresses procedure and logic, while Beijing tends to act out of nationalism. This situation has led to Singapore’s sympathies lying with its Southeast Asian neighbors with regard to their territorial disputes with Beijing.

In the meantime, leaders in Beijing have difficulty comprehending why Singapore has been reluctant to rally to their defense over the territorial claims in the South China Sea. It is because according to the “Chinese logic” embraced by Beijing leaders, the Singaporean leaders are supposed to be on their side, as they are Chinese too.

Well, what we can say is that the different stances of Singapore and Beijing on the South China Sea disputes are not only the result of their conflicting geopolitical interests, but also the conflict of two different cultures and set of values.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Oct. 26

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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RC

Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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