Stable, wealthy and largely Chinese: Singapore is natural choice for Xi-Ma meeting

If the historic summit this weekend between the leaders of China and Taiwan is laden with symbolism, so is the location, the city-state of Singapore.

An island nation made up largely of the descendants of 19th-century Chinese migrants, Singapore has maintained close ties with both China and Taiwan, and is a model of what China aspires to be: educated, tolerant, prudent and well-to-do. Perhaps most importantly for Beijing, Singapore has also created a nation docile enough not to question a semi-authoritarian government too stridently.

Something in Singapore has undeniably worked. The bustling metropolis with a population of 5.5 million — a tiny fraction of China's 1.4 billion and a quarter of Taiwan's 23 million - is holding its own despite a crippling global economy, with its gross domestic product expected to grow slightly in the third quarter. It has a 97 percent literacy rate, 90 percent home ownership rate and one of the world's lowest crime rates.

More than 20 years ago, China and Taiwan held their first talks in Singapore. On Saturday, the top officials of both sides — Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Taiwanese counterpart, Ma Ying-jeou — flew to Singapore to sit down together, the first time that has happened since the Chinese civil war.

"The decision to hold talks in Singapore again is significant in itself," said Liu Hong, Chair of Nanyang Technological University's School of Humanities and Social Sciences. "It is not only an international hub but politically neutral, making it good ground for both mainland China and Taiwan."

Singapore's ties to both sides go back decades.

Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister and the architect of modern Singapore, was an interlocutor between China and the West, often fiercely defending Confucian values of discipline and authoritarianism while berating the West for being critical of the lack of free speech. Lee, who died in March, was one of the last foreign dignitaries to meet with the ailing Chinese leader Mao Zedong in the 1970s.

Lee had no tolerance for political dissent, something Beijing has long understood. Opposition figures in Singapore were either defeated in elections or taken to court on defamation charges until they were bankrupt. It still allows no street protests. Demonstrations can only be held in tiny Hong Lim Park, and only after demonstrators register online. Any other gathering — private, political or otherwise — requires a police permit.

Trade between the two countries grew with China's open-door policy, though Singapore only established full diplomatic relations after its larger neighbor, Indonesia. The country has in recent years become China's largest investor after Hong Kong and Taiwan, with a cumulative total of $72 billion. Taiwan and Singapore are also major trading partners.

Over the years, Singapore has played host to hundreds of international security forums, large-scale financial conferences and sporting events.

While its citizens have, in recent years, grown more critical of government policies, they remain largely apathetic on global issues. Singapore's leaders have in some ways propagated this, and have succeeded in maintaining good relations with both Taiwan and China.

Ethnic ties unite all three of them. More than 70 percent of Singapore's population is ethnic Chinese.

"It all comes back to Chinese roots," said Chen Gang, a research fellow at National University of Singapore's East Asian Institute. "Singapore has a special role to play in China's foreign policy."

While historic simply for having taken place, Saturday's talks are not expected to generate much substance. No agreements will be signed or joint statements issued. Instead, Ma and Xi will talk about maintaining peace and the status quo.

Those are issues that Singapore understands very well.