BEIJING - Singapore and China have benefited from mutual learning and sharing of each others' developmental experiences over the past four decades.
Singapore has always been a steadfast supporter of China's rise, said Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan in an interview published in China Daily on Monday (June 12).
Singapore has been China’s largest foreign investor since 2013, and is also one of China’s top trading partners in ASEAN.
"We were the first Asian country to sign a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with China which became a pathfinder for the subsequent ASEAN-China FTA. Both sides are now negotiating an upgrade of our bilateral FTA, to ensure that it keeps up with the expanding nature of our economic relations," Dr Balakrishnan said.
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While the two countries "may have our respective national interests, there are no fundamental strategic disagreements", said the minister. "We both support a fair and just international system that enables all countries, big or small, developed or developing, to fulfil the aspirations of our people in our own unique ways."
Singapore is an "early and strong supporter" of the Belt and Road initiative, which is China's ambitious project to link Asia, Africa and Europe through building roads, railways, ports and industrial parks along two ancient trading routes overland and via sea, Dr Balakrishnan added.
Singapore and China can work together to add value to the Belt and Road initiative, he said.
"In fact, we are already doing so through the CCI (Chongqing Connectivity Initiative), which was jointly launched by President Xi and Prime Minister Lee during President Xi’s State Visit to Singapore in November 2015... We are also currently working on establishing a 'Southern Trade Corridor' to reduce the cost and enhance the flow of trade between Southeast Asia and Western China. Consequently, the CCI will be a key node linking 'the Belt' (Silk Road Economic Belt) and 'the Road' (21st Century Maritime Silk Road)."
The Chongqing Connectivity Initiative is one of three government-to-government projects between Singapore and China. The Southern Trade Corridor will be established through a road and railway connection from Chongqing to Guangxi and onward to Singapore through the port city of Qinzhou in southern Guangxi region.
Apart from infrastructure connectivity, Singapore is already supporting the Belt and Road initiative through financial services.
"According to the PRC Ministry of Commerce, Singapore accounted for one third of China’s outward investment to 'Belt and Road' countries last year. Singapore will continue to support Chinese companies as more venture abroad," said Dr Balakrishnan.
Both countries can also work together to provide training to government officials from the Belt and Road countries, he said.
Dr Balakrishnan is in the Chinese capital for a two-day official visit starting from Sunday at the invitation of his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi.
He noted that the Belt and Road initiative complements the Master Plan for Asean Connectivity. And as part of efforts to enhance public infrastructure and connectivity in the region, Singapore is working with Malaysia to build the Singapore-Kuala Lumpur High Speed Rail.
"Singapore recognises China's experience and expertise and welcomes Chinese companies to put in a good bid during the international tender," he said.
The tender process, which would be conducted in a fair and transparent manner, would be jointly called by Singapore and Malaysia later this year, he added.
Dr Balakrishnan noted that the trajectory of Asean-China relations continues to be positive but cautioned that both sides should not allow any one issue to overshadow or compromise the entire relationship.
He said both sides should also continuously find ways to boost two-way tourist visits and promote greater people-to-people exchanges between ASEAN and China. "It is in this context that we have designated 2017 as the ASEAN-China Year of Tourism Cooperation," he said.
He observed that the situation in the South China Sea has been calm without any major disruptions in the past year. He reiterated that the complicated issue of competing territorial claims must be resolved by the claimant states themselves.
"The non-claimant states hope that the South China Sea, which is a vital channel for trade and a major sea lane of communication, will be kept peaceful, stable, free and open. All parties must continue to exercise self-restraint, maintain channels of communication, and work on practical measures that will help to manage potential incidents, even as we work towards the long-term peaceful resolution of differences," he said.
In the interview, Dr Balakrishnan said he welcomes the progress made in finalising the framework for the Code of Conduct (COC) in the disputed waterway at a meeting in southwestern Guiyang city last month.
"Officials from Singapore and China cooperated effectively and constructively as co-chairs of the meeting to achieve this outcome ahead of the mid-2017 target. I am looking forward to the endorsement of the COC framework when we meet at the ASEAN-China Post-Ministerial Conference in the Philippines in August.
"I hope we can take advantage of the positive momentum and make further progress with the detailed text of the COC in the next phase of negotiations. As Country Coordinator, Singapore will continue to work closely with China and all ASEAN Member States in an objective and transparent manner to enhance mutual trust and confidence, as well as further deepen our close relations," he added.
On Monday (June 12), Dr Balakrishnan met Mr Wang. He will also call on China's Vice-President Li Yuanchao and State Councillor Yang Jiechi.
Accompanying him on this trip are Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information, and Health Chee Hong Tat and Minister of State for Manpower, and Foreign Affairs Sam Tan, as well as senior officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.