China's Belt and Road project could bring opportunities and challenges to S'pore: Minister Lawrence Wong

Singapore's National Development Minister Lawrence Wong represented the Singapore in signing a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on the Belt and Road Initiative with the China on May 14, 2017.
Singapore's National Development Minister Lawrence Wong represented the Singapore in signing a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on the Belt and Road Initiative with the China on May 14, 2017.PHOTO: MINISTRY OF NATIONAL DEVELOPMENT

BEIJING - Singapore's partnership with China on its ambitious Belt and Road initiative brings both opportunities and challenges, said National Development Minister Lawrence Wong on Tuesday (May16) in Beijing.

Singapore can play a role to help finance Belt and Road projects, and provide expertise in infrastructure planning. Singapore companies can also partner Chinese companies to invest in South-east Asia, he said.

"But we should be aware that it can present competition. With the Belt and Road (initiative), new infrastructure will be built all around us...Trade routes will be adjusted as these new roads and ports get built and developed," said Mr Wong, who represented Singapore at the inaugural Belt and Road Forum in Beijing on Sunday and Monday (May 14-15). The diplomatic event, touted as the biggest-ever initiated by China, gathered 1,500 participants from more than 130 countries.

Mooted by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013, the Belt and Road initiative is an ambitious plan to link China to Asia, Africa and Europe, via land and sea.

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Mr Wong told reporters that there are other countries looking to be the next transshipment port, air hub, sea hub, or financial hub as they ride on Mr Xi's mega project, which promises to boost growth by building roads, railways, ports and industrial parks along the trade routes.

"This means that we shouldn't be complacent and should continue to work hard to make Singapore relevant," he said.

On the other hand, Singapore should also be confident of its own abilities to stand up to the challenges.

"Already, if you look at our plans, we are putting in significant investment to expand our airport and seaport. We are doubling the capacity of the two ports, and that will make them much more relevant in the future," he noted.

Singapore's smart nation drive will also put it in a good position to compete with other digital hubs that may be created out of the Belt and Road initiative, he added.

"We are not standing still and we cannot afford to stand still," he said.

When asked why Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong did not attend the Belt and Road Forum, which was attended by 29 heads of state and government, including many from South-east Asia, Mr Wong said the invitation was decided by the Chinese.

He noted that the focus of the forum was on outbound investments, and in getting Chinese investments abroad and encouraging Chinese companies to go overseas.

"We don't have any specific projects as of now that may be part of this Belt and Road (initiative) in terms of infrastructure," he said.

"It doesn't mean that we are completely irrelevant," he added.

He recalled that when the Japanese starting investing in South-east Asia in the 1980s, their aim was to relocate their factories and outsource manufacturing to cheaper locations.

As their investment needs matched Singapore's development needs at that time, the Government worked hard to shape the country as a good base for Japanese companies to set up their South-east Asian branches.

"Now the wave of (Chinese) investments may be more infrastructure related. It may or may not be in Singapore because our infrastructure needs are very different from that of the developing countries around the region," he explained.

But as a financial and infrastructure centre, Singapore can play a role in brokering these Chinese investments to those countries as well as partnering Chinese companies to go out to the region.

On Monday (May 15), Hong Kong's rail operator said it plans to partner China Railway Corporation, a large state-owned company, to bid for the construction of the 350-km high-speed railway between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur.

If the joint bid is successful, Singapore will have its first so-called Belt and Road project right on its shores.

When asked to comment on this, Mr Wong said: "We welcome the participation of all companies, including those from Hong Kong and China."

Mr Wong will head to Suzhou on Wednesday (May 17) to chair the 8th World Cities Summit Mayors Forum - a platform for mayors and city leaders to share best practices on how to address pressing urban challenges.