China and Singapore agree to establish hotline amidst tensions with the United States

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General Li inspecting the Guard of Honour at MINDEF. Picture source: Singapore Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen

1st June 2023 – (Singapore) China and Singapore have signed a memorandum of understanding to establish a hotline between their defence leaders. The hotline will provide a secure telephone link for high-level communications. The move comes at a time when tensions between China and the United States are high, and dialogue between the two countries has stalled. Singapore is a close American partner in Asia, and the agreement to establish a direct phone link will be seen as a significant development.

Chinese Defence Minister Li Shangfu, who is on his first visit to Singapore in his role, signed the memorandum of understanding with his Singaporean counterpart Ng Eng Hen. The two countries’ defence establishments already interact regularly through bilateral and multilateral exercises, and the establishment of the hotline is expected to strengthen mutual understanding and trust.

The hotline will provide a high-level open line of communication between Beijing and Singapore, and the establishment of such a line is seen as an important development in the current geopolitical climate. China has been irritated by American support for Taiwan, a self-governing democracy that it claims as its own territory. The United States has also imposed sanctions directly targeting Li, which China has criticised.

Li declined a request from U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin to meet on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue security conference, where both officials will be speaking. The rejection came after Austin offered to hold talks with Li in Singapore, but China rejected the offer, saying that the United States had disregarded China’s concerns and created artificial obstacles.

The establishment of the hotline between China and Singapore is expected to further strengthen the long-standing, warm, and friendly relations between the two countries. The hotline will facilitate high-level communications between their defence leaders and enhance mutual understanding and trust.

The move also underscores Singapore’s close military and economic partnership with the United States, which has been at odds with China on several issues, including Taiwan, human rights, and trade. As a result, the establishment of the hotline is likely to be seen as a significant development in the region, given the current geopolitical climate.

During his visit to Singapore, Li is expected to address a meeting of defence officials, diplomats, and country leaders on Sunday. However, he declined to meet with U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, who will also be speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue security conference.