March 24, 2015 / 4:39 AM / 4 years ago

Taiwan president pays last respects to Singapore's Lee, China shrugs off

TAIPEI/SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou flew to Singapore on Tuesday to pay his respects after the death of the city-state’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, a diplomatically sensitive visit given China’s stance that Taiwan is a renegade province.

Ma visited the Istana, the site of the Singapore prime minister’s official residence and where Lee’s family is holding a private wake, shortly after 5 p.m. (0800 GMT).

“Ma wanted to express his condolences to Lee’s family face-to-face,” Mao Chi-kuo, the Taiwanese premier told parliament.

Ma is unlikely to attend Sunday’s invitation-only state funeral for Lee to avoid an awkward encounter with China’s representatives, given the likelihood of a top Chinese leader attending.

China, which maintains a close relationship with Singapore, holds that there is only “One China” and Taiwan is part of it.

Singapore’s foreign ministry did not respond to a request for comment on Ma’s visit.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said that Lee always upheld a “One China” policy while he was alive and also did a lot of work to improve cross strait relations, which China appreciates.

“We believe that the Singapore side will act in accordance with the ‘One China’ principle to carefully and appropriately deal with the relevant issue related to Taiwan,” Hua said at a daily news briefing.

The city-state faces a diplomatic balancing act keeping all of its allies happy in its preparations for Lee’s funeral.

Singapore’s pragmatic approach to foreign policy, spearheaded by Lee, means it is on friendly terms with a wide spectrum of political regimes.

As well as having a strong relationship with both the United States and China, it has also built ties with countries shunned by some of its larger allies.

It kept up relations with Myanmar throughout the military junta’s rule when it was sanctioned by the West and has trade and diplomatic ties with North Korea.

Singapore maintains a close, informal relationship with Taiwan and the two countries signed a free trade pact in 2013.

Taiwan is not recognized internationally by most nations due to Chinese pressure, though China does not object to purely economic exchanges.

Slideshow (4 Images)

Lee operated as an intermediary between China and Taiwan, helping to achieve the first direct talks between the two in 1993.

“The government of the Republic of China and its people will eternally be grateful for the contribution Lee Kuan Yew made in promoting relations between Taiwan and Singapore, as well as his contribution to peaceful cross-strait relations,” Ma said in a statement on Monday following the news of Lee’s death.

Additional reporting by Michael Gold in TAIPEI and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Writing by Rachel Armstrong; Editing by Mark Bendeich and Jeremy Laurence

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