New initiatives to deepen S'pore-China friendship

In a written interview with China's Xinhua news agency for the 13th Singapore-China Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation meeting, DPM Teo Chee Hean takes stock of Sino-Singapore relations, and the future of bilateral ties

In line with the multi-faceted collaborations for the Tianjin Eco-City (left), Singapore and China yesterday signed five pacts to cooperate on improving the infrastructure and services there.
In line with the multi-faceted collaborations for the Tianjin Eco-City (above), Singapore and China yesterday signed five pacts to cooperate on improving the infrastructure and services there. PHOTO: SINO-SINGAPORE TIANJIN ECO-CITY INVESTMENT AND DEVELOPMENT CO

Xinhuanet During your visit to China, you'll co-chair the 13th Singapore-China Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation. What's your expectation of the visit?

DPM I am pleased to be in Beijing to co-chair the 13th Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation (JCBC) with Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli. The JCBC is the premier platform for Singapore-China bilateral relations. Since its establishment in 2004, the JCBC has played a key role in nurturing the special friendship and promoting closer cooperation between our two countries. At every JCBC, we review the wide-ranging areas of cooperation, including business and trade, financial services, inclusive and sustainable development, human resource development and people-to-people exchanges, and agree on initiatives to strengthen and deepen our broad-based bilateral relations.

This year, apart from reviewing the progress of our first two bilateral government-to-government projects at the 18th Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP) and the 9th Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City (SSTEC) Joint Steering Councils, Vice-Premier Zhang and I will also co-chair the inaugural Joint Steering Council (JSC) Meeting for the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative (CCI), our third bilateral government-to-government flagship project. Both countries have placed emphasis on the CCI as it is a key priority demonstration project under China's "Belt and Road", Western Region Development and Yangtze River Economic Belt Strategies. This was discussed when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong met President Xi Jinping in Beijing in 2014, and launched by the two leaders during President Xi's state visit to Singapore in November 2015. Prime Minister Lee personally visited Chongqing in September 2016 to review the progress of our bilateral cooperation in the CCI.

The SIP continues to be at the forefront of China's reforms and plays a pathfinder role for China's economic priorities. I look forward to discussing with Vice-Premier Zhang how we can expand collaboration between Singapore and SIP in new areas such as research, innovation and intellectual property.

In line with our multi-faceted collaborations for the Tianjin Eco-City, we will be signing memorandums of understanding (MOUs) in areas such as knowledge exchange, water resource management, healthcare, smart city masterplanning and R&D collaboration in digital media. At the CCI JSC meeting, both sides will report the good progress made in the four priority sectors, namely financial services, civil aviation, modern logistics, and information and communications technology. The new Chongqing Transport and Logistics Master Plan will also strengthen and anchor Chongqing as an international hub for multi-modal logistics. The extensive agenda of the JCBC and the JSCs is a good reflection of the depth and breadth of Singapore-China bilateral cooperation. I look forward to fruitful and productive discussions on these important initiatives.

Xinhuanet At the 12th JCBC on Oct 13, 2015, your discussions focused on six areas: the third government-to-government project, upgrade of the China-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (CSFTA), economic transition, financial cooperation, cultural exchanges, and inclusive and sustainable development. More than one year has passed since the third Sino-Singapore government-to-government project was launched. What's your comment on the project's achievement? Can you update us on the latest development of the bilateral cooperation in the other five areas?

In line with the multi-faceted collaborations for the Tianjin Eco-City (left), Singapore and China yesterday signed five pacts to cooperate on improving the infrastructure and services there.
In line with the multi-faceted collaborations for the Tianjin Eco-City (above), Singapore and China yesterday signed five pacts to cooperate on improving the infrastructure and services there. PHOTO: SINO-SINGAPORE TIANJIN ECO-CITY INVESTMENT AND DEVELOPMENT CO

DPM We have achieved much progress in the focus areas for the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative since its launch in November 2015. In financial services, policy innovations have strengthened financial connectivity between Chongqing and Singapore to facilitate economic transformation of the Western Region. To date, more than US$6 billion (S$8.4 billion) worth of financial deals, including cross-border loans and bond issuances, have been agreed and completed, helping Chinese Chongqing-based corporates to access cost-efficient funding in Singapore.

Civil aviation connectivity between Singapore, Chongqing and beyond has also been significantly enhanced. Chinese airline West Air and Singapore airline SilkAir now serve the Singapore-Chongqing route with 14 flights a week.

West Air has also extended its daily Singapore-Chongqing service to Urumqi via Chongqing since September 2016. We are exploring more linkages between western China and South-east Asia/South-west Pacific via Chongqing and Singapore. We are also discussing a new direct trade route that would connect Chongqing to the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road overland via the Beibu Gulf and by sea to Singapore, and greater high-speed IT connectivity between western China and Southeast Asia with a Singapore-Chongqing Digital Super Highway.

We have also made good progress in the other areas of collaboration on the CSFTA upgrade, finance, economic transition, inclusive and sustainable development, and cultural exchanges.

On the CSFTA upgrade, our officials have made some progress over the two rounds of negotiations in 2016. We should work towards an expeditious conclusion of a substantive CSFTA upgrade. A forward-looking, substantive and comprehensive upgrade of the CSFTA will send a strong message that China and Singapore are jointly committed to developing deeper economic linkages and greater trade liberalisation. In January this year, President Xi made two important speeches at the World Economic Forum in Davos and the United Nations in Geneva. I fully support President Xi's statement that we should promote inclusive globalisation against the backdrop of a volatile and uncertain world. At the multilateral level, as the country coordinator of Asean-China Dialogue Relations, we will continue to work closely with China to advance multilateral liberalisation initiatives such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, with the aim of eventually achieving a Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific that will bring together countries around the Asia-Pacific for mutual collaboration and development.

In June 2016, our Monetary Authority of Singapore announced the inclusion of renminbi (RMB) investments as part of Singapore's official foreign reserves in recognition of the steady and calibrated liberalisation of China's financial markets, and the growing acceptance of RMB assets in the global portfolio of institutional investors. This year, both sides will further deepen capital market collaboration between China and Singapore.

We continue to have good exchanges on governance issues such as promoting inclusive and sustainable development and managing the social impact of economic transition and an ageing population, through our longstanding human resource development cooperation. I co-chair two platforms - the Leadership Forum with Central Organisation Department Minister Zhao Leji and the Social Governance Forum with Political and Legal Affairs Commission Secretary Meng Jianzhu. Since the mid-1990s, about 55,000 Chinese officials have attended various training programmes in Singapore. Increasing numbers of Singapore officials are also visiting China and exchanging views with our Chinese counterparts and learning from China's experiences. We face many common challenges and there is great value in learning from each other.

The Singapore-China Executive Programme on Cultural Cooperation has facilitated numerous cultural exchanges between our two countries. For instance, Beijing People's Art Theatre performances in Singapore have been well received. The National Gallery Singapore has worked with the National Art Museum of China on a joint exhibition. To mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of Dr Sun Yat Sen last year, the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall in Singapore collaborated with The Memorial of Wuchang Uprising of 1911 Revolution from Wuhan on the exhibition One Night in Wuchang: 1911 Revolution & Nanyang, which I had the pleasure to open.

Xinhuanet How would you evaluate Singapore-China economic relations? What new measures will Singapore undertake at all levels to promote bilateral economic relations?

DPM In 2015, to mark the 25th anniversary of our bilateral relations, President Tony Tan made a state visit to China and President Xi made a state visit to Singapore, taking relations to new heights. 2017 marks the 27th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Singapore and China. Our bilateral cooperation has grown by leaps and bounds. Singapore has been China's largest foreign investor since 2013. China is also Singapore's top trading partner.

We have been a partner of China's integration with the global community, including accession into the World Trade Organisation in 2001, recognition of China as a market economy since 2004, participation in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) and establishment of dialogue partnership with Asean. Singapore was also one of the earliest supporters of the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

As our economies undergo transformation and restructuring, both sides can connect our economies in new areas such as digital economy and innovation. To strengthen economic and business cooperation at the local level, we have established seven Provincial Business Councils with Guangdong, Liaoning, Shandong, Tianjin, Sichuan, Jiangsu and Zhejiang. These councils are co-chaired by the younger Singapore ministers and vice-ministers, and the governors and vice-governors of the respective provinces. Through these councils, we will continue to work on mutually beneficial projects that fit the respective province's overall development strategies. We also hope that our younger ministers can build lasting friendships with their Chinese counterparts.

Xinhuanet Based on the existing economic cooperation and trade between the two countries, how will the two sides further promote cooperation in social governance, sustainable development and cultural exchanges? Which areas have the greatest potential?

DPM The characterisation of our relationship as an "all-round cooperative partnership progressing with the times" reflects the depth, breadth and strength of our bilateral ties, and the bright prospects for the future. It highlights the constantly progressing nature of our bilateral cooperation in tandem with our changing needs and interests. We have consistently abided by our "One China" policy, and facilitated the landmark Wang-Koo talks in 1993 and the historic Xi-Ma meeting in Singapore in 2015. Singapore has been a consistent friend and supporter of China's peaceful development. Each of our government-to-government projects, namely the Suzhou Industrial Park, the Tianjin Eco-City, and the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative, and major platforms such as the Leadership Forum and Social Governance Forum, have supported China's developmental priorities at key stages.

Our bilateral people-to-people relations have always been strong. There are many regular exchanges in cultural, educational, scientific and other areas between our two countries. In 2015, in conjunction with the 25th anniversary of bilateral relations, the Singapore Embassy and Singapore companies in China raised almost four million yuan (S$818,500) to build three primary school hostels in the earthquake-hit Ludian county in Yunnan province. The construction of the hostels has now been completed, and Ludian students will be able to use them very soon. The close people-to-people ties were also seen through the generous donation of US$25 million by Singaporeans to assist those affected by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. We are a small country, but we have been a reliable and longstanding friend of China, even in times of need.

There is much room for further cooperation on the "Belt and Road" initiative. Both sides have agreed that beginning from this year, cooperation on the "Belt and Road" initiative will be included as a key item on the JCBC agenda.

Singapore-China relations have always been supported by a high degree of mutual trust at all levels, and the JCBC represents this special relationship. I am confident that as longstanding friends, we can build on the strong foundations and continue to strengthen the special ties between our two countries as we write the next chapter of bilateral cooperation.

Xinhuanet Singapore is an important Asean member and has served as the country coordinator for China-Asean relations since August 2015. Recently, Sino-Singapore relations have experienced some frictions at the government and people-to-people level. We can hear some "noise" from time to time. What is your view of these twists and turns? In which areas should China and Singapore work together to enhance mutual trust?

DPM Singapore and China have a broad and longstanding relationship. We share similar views on most issues, and have worked well together to advance these common interests. But even among close neighbours and friends, there may be different perspectives on some issues, given that countries have different size, history, vulnerabilities, and geographical location. But the fundamental position of our two countries, that we share a common interest in the peaceful growth and development of our two countries and the region, remains the same.

Our common interest in building a peaceful and growing region is much greater than any occasional differences of views. Singapore will continue to be a strong supporter of China's peaceful development and constructive engagement in the region. As country coordinator, we are committed to strengthening the Asean-China partnership.

China has been Asean's largest trading partner since 2009, and Asean has been China's third largest trading partner since 2011. We upgraded the Asean-China FTA in 2015, developed several co-production projects in the last two years, and are working to improve tourism cooperation and synergy between the "Belt and Road" initiative and the Masterplan for Asean Connectivity in 2017.

It is not easy to reach a consensus on every issue among the 10 Asean member states and China. Nonetheless, what is most important is to maintain close communication so that we can expand on our common interests and reduce differences. We should also focus on enlarging our shared interests and advancing common objectives. Among true friends, there are no issues which cannot be discussed and no challenges which cannot be overcome.

As country coordinator, we will do our best to strengthen and deepen Asean-China cooperation, and I am confident of the bright prospects for even closer relations between Asean and China.

Xinhuanet Singapore is an important developed Asean member. What role do you think Singapore will play in China's "21st Century Maritime Silk Road" initiative? In the process of advancing South-east Asian connectivity and Asean integration, in which areas could China and Singapore cooperate to achieve mutual benefit and win-win results? Singapore is currently discussing a high-speed rail cooperation project with Malaysia, will Singapore invite Chinese companies to participate?

DPM Singapore is a strategic hub of the age-old "Maritime Silk Road" linking China, South-east Asia, West Asia and the Middle East. As a key hub for trade, infrastructure financing and one of the largest offshore RMB centres, Singapore is well-placed to support the growing number of Chinese companies venturing into markets along the "Belt and Road".

Singapore-based banks and infrastructural funds are key players in providing project loans and financial advisory for regional infrastructure projects. In particular, Chinese and Singapore banks are actively financing "Belt and Road" projects, particularly in South-east Asia.

The Monetary Authority of Singapore is also working with commercial banks and multilateral organisations to develop infrastructure as an investable asset class. Some of these multilateral organisations such as the World Bank, the International Finance Corporation and the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency already have offices located in Singapore. This will help to harness more private capital to support regional infrastructure financing needs.

The "Belt and Road" will also complement initiatives such as the Asean Economic Community and the Master Plan on Asean Connectivity, and the various FTAs that regional countries are currently negotiating, including the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

There are many opportunities for Singapore and Chinese companies to work together on the "Belt and Road" projects in areas such as transport and logistics, mixed-use park developments, construction materials and financing. For example, Singapore's Ascendas and China Machinery Engineering Corporation signed an agreement in November 2015 to form a joint venture to develop industrial and business parks in third countries. Our officials are currently in negotiations to conclude an MOU on developing third-party market cooperation, and this will facilitate joint collaborations in 'Belt and Road" projects.

Singapore and Malaysia have agreed to conduct an international competitive tender for the high-speed rail (HSR) link between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. Several leaders from Singapore have taken China's HSR. Singapore recognises the strengths in China's extensive HSR system, and welcomes Chinese companies to put in a good bid for the HSR tender. Singapore and Malaysia will give all bids serious consideration in a fair, open and transparent manner.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 27, 2017, with the headline 'New initiatives to deepen S'pore-China friendship'. Subscribe