An unusual public spat over the South China Sea between Singapore’s ambassador to China and a hawkish Communist party tabloid has exposed growing strains in the relationship between the two countries.

The Singapore envoy this week accused the Global Times of “false and unfounded” reporting following an article saying the city-state had sought to include the issue of the disputed waters in a joint statement following last week’s Non-Aligned Movement summit in Venezuela.

The newspaper, a subsidiary of Communist party mouthpiece the People’s Daily, also claimed in last week’s article that Singapore’s representative at the summit had tried — but failed — to add an endorsement of the Philippines’ international arbitration case against China’s territorial claims. It added that the representative had become exasperated and made “sarcastic remarks” when the move was opposed.

In a response this week posted to the website of the Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ambassador Stanley Loh conceded that the city-state had intervened at the summit to back the common position of Southeast Asian nations over the maritime dispute, but rejected the newspaper’s “irresponsible” report, which “attributed actions and words to Singapore which are false and unfounded”.

The two countries have close economic ties — China is Singapore’s second-biggest export market, while Singapore is one of China’s biggest foreign investors — but diplomatic relations have traditionally been more guarded. Since the 1870s, when Imperial China established its first consular presence in Southeast Asia, Beijing has sought to bring the region’s ethnic Chinese population under its sway, and tap their wealth.

China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, whose shipping lanes carry about 30 per cent of global trade. Beijing’s assertive approach to the region has stirred up anger and exposed deep divisions among Southeast Asian leaders, with Beijing’s stance backed by some but fervently opposed by others.

Vietnam and the Philippines, which are embroiled in territorial disputes with China, have moved to strengthen ties with the US, while China has drawn Cambodia more firmly into its orbit.

Over the past year Singapore has moved to bolster military ties with the US, including allowing the deployment of Poseidon surveillance aircraft to the city-state and exploring training opportunities for Singapore’s armed forces in America’s Pacific territory of Guam.

“Underlying all of this is China’s irritation that Singapore, though it professes to look both ways and doesn’t want to make invidious choices, is deepening its relationship with the US,” said Alex Neill, an Asia-Pacific security fellow at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in Singapore. “On [Singapore prime minister] Lee Hsien Loong’s recent visit to DC he was afforded the highest of honours and access, what came out of that was an enhanced defence relationship.” 

While China analysts often take the Global Times’ reporting with a pinch of salt, it is regarded as a barometer of sentiment among the more conservative factions of the Communist party, Mr Neill said. 

Global Times editor-in-chief Hu Xijin has defended his newspaper’s account of the Venezuela summit, saying in a published letter that Singapore was “more and more openly siding with America and Japan over the South China Sea issue”, citing US air force deployments to Singapore as evidence. 

On Tuesday, China’s ministry of foreign affairs weighed in saying unspecified “individual countries” had “insisted on highlighting the South China Sea-related contents in the [Non Aligned Movement summit] outcome documents”. 

The Global Times took this as a victory, publishing a story on Wednesday saying the foreign ministry had “refuted” the ambassador’s complaint against the newspaper.

This prompted a further response from Mr Loh, who issued a second request on Tuesday calling on the tabloid to publish his first letter. 

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