BEIJING - For Asean-China trade to flourish, both sides need to work at keeping overall ties strong, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Alluding to the need for rationality and restraint on thorny issues such as the South China Sea dispute, PM Lee said that frictions in the relationship will only affect mutually beneficial cooperation.
This is why Singapore will do its best to positively advance Asean-China relations when it assumes the grouping's chairmanship next year, he said in an interview with Xinhuanet ahead of his official visit to China beginning on Tuesday (Sept 19).
Mr Lee was asked by Xinhuanet to take stock of ties ahead of next year, an important milestone for Asean-China relations.
Next year marks 15 years since China became Asean's first dialogue partner to sign the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in South-east Asia. It was also the first dialogue partner to establish a strategic partnership with Asean in the same year, 2003.
Mr Lee highlighted the importance of good relations even as he emphasised that Asean-China ties today are deep and multifaceted.
Other highlights of PM Lee's interview
On digital payments, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said it has become a convenient alternative to cash for many Chinese, to the point that people now fear their mobile phone batteries running flat over not having money in their wallet. Singapore is not yet at this level, and Mr Lee hopes that China's example will inspire Singapore to move faster on this front.
Having visited China for more than 30 years, Mr Lee said he has personally witnessed a huge, national change in prosperity. The change is evident in infrastructure such as highways and railways, in telecommunications and Internet access, and also in the people's expectations and outlook. The next five to 10 years will see some challenges, but none that China cannot overcome.
RELATIONS WITH ASEAN
Whether or not trade and economic ties with Asean countries can continue to grow will depend on how the overall relationship develops, said Mr Lee. Trade and cooperation projects will come naturally if ties are good, but should they sour, even mutually beneficial cooperation will take a hit. As Asean chair, Singapore will do its best to promote Asean-China ties, he said.
He noted that China is the largest trading partner for many of Asean's 10 member countries.
China is also Asean's largest source of foreign tourists, with more than 38 million trips recorded between the two sides last year.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang attends the annual Asean summit, and he has plenty to discuss each time he meets Asean leaders, Mr Lee added.
This shows not only that the basic relationship is there, but also that the state of relations between China and Asean as well as bilateral ties between China and individual Asean countries are crucial, he said.
While ties between China and some Asean states with claims in the South China Sea hit a low point last year after an international arbitral tribunal ruled against China's territorial claims there, relations have since recovered.
Asean and China have steadily improved practical cooperation in the disputed waters over the past year, such as by starting Foreign Ministry-to-Foreign Ministry hotlines.
This month, officials from both sides kicked off discussions that lay the groundwork for negotiations on a Code of Conduct to manage disputes in the South China Sea.
As the country coordinator for Asean-China dialogue relations currently, and as Asean chair next year, Singapore will certainly try to promote cooperation and coordination between Asean and China, said Mr Lee.
The Prime Minister was also asked about a key upcoming tender for the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore high-speed rail project.
He said he hopes to see a Chinese proposal, given China's wealth of expertise and technology accrued in building its own high-speed rail network over the past decade.
Mr Lee said he is sure the Chinese proposal would be of a high quality, and that it would be given "objective and serious consideration".