CHONGQING - Singapore and China have inked as many as nine agreements at their latest apex bilateral meeting, held for the first time in the south-western Chinese city of Chongqing.
The two countries signed a raft of pacts - from customs twinning to a Smart City project in Shenzhen to a youth internship exchange programme - at their 15th Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation meeting.
The substantial number of deals - up from seven signed at last year's talks - could be seen as a sign of a new chapter in the relationship between the two countries, as Singapore transitions to a new political generation.
On Tuesday (Oct 15), co-chairs of the council, Singapore Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat and Chinese Vice-Premier Han Zheng, acknowledged the milestone in their opening remarks at the bilateral meeting and subsequent council meeting.
Referring to the 30th anniversary of relations between Singapore and China next year, Mr Han said there were "a lot of expectations" about this year's meeting as the two countries face common challenges amid a wave of protectionism and anti-globalisation sweeping the world.
HSBC Singapore CEO Tony Cripps said he sees “tremendous opportunity” for Singapore and China business to collaborate across many sectors including in the digital economy and e-commerce, sustainable infrastructure development and supply chains.
“In an increasingly protectionist world, today’s swathe of new pacts between Singapore and China are a welcome shot in the arm for trade and cross-border business connectivity,” he said. “Standing at the financial gateway to South-east Asia, Singapore is the nexus for future economic activity across this economic corridor and today’s MOUs, including increased collaboration on smart cities, and further smoothing the flow of trade through the upgraded FTA, should pique the interest of businesses on both sides.”
Mr Heng, who is co-chairing the council for the first time, said both countries attach great importance to the annual summit, which is reflected by "the high-level representation and substantial achievements" of the projects.
Referring to the significant number of fourth-generation leaders from Singapore who are attending the meeting, he said their presence will hopefully "pave the way for the next generation of leaders to strengthen our bilateral relationship".
Among the agreements signed was one between Singapore's Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) and the Shenzhen government on a Smart City initiative that will connect business ecosystems and promote links between people and businesses, between the island-state and the Chinese tech capital.
MCI said in a statement that the projects under this initiative will be in areas like "digital connectivity, talent exchange and development, and innovation and entrepreneurship".
Singapore aims to be the world's first Smart Nation.
Another agreement is for internship exchanges for students and recent graduates of polytechnics and universities.
Launching next year, it will allow up to 500 Singaporean full-time students and recent graduates each year to work at a China-based company of their choice for up to six months. Chinese students will also have similar opportunities.
This is the first bilateral internship exchange scheme that Singapore has with another country, and Singapore is the first Asian country to have such an arrangement with China.
Singapore Customs and its Chinese counterpart also signed a deal to smoothen customs clearance for Singapore's intergovernmental project in Chongqing.
On Tuesday, Mr Heng and Mr Han also announced that the upgrade to the two countries' free trade agreement will take effect on Wednesday.
The upgrade allows more petrochemical products to qualify for preferential treatment and also grants Singapore companies greater access into China's legal, maritime and construction services sector.
It also includes enhancements in investment protection, customs procedures and trade facilitation, and trade remedial measures, as well as commitments in new areas such as e-commerce, competition and environment.
The free trade agreement has existed since 2009 and was China's first comprehensive bilateral free trade pact with an Asian country.
Negotiations for its upgrade started in 2015 and took eight rounds of talks over three years.
In another announcement, China’s central bank agreed to grant a settlement agent licence to DBS bank, which will allow it to trade, settle and provide custody for interbank bond market instruments on behalf of foreign investors.
The oldest of the three, the 25-year-old Suzhou project is moving beyond its bricks-and-mortar industrial park beginnings, with Singapore now stepping in with professional services, intellectual property management and financial services to support Chinese companies to go global.
In the innovation space, Singapore's Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star) will have its first foreign outpost, called the A*Star Partners' Centre @ SIP, to facilitate partnerships between Singapore and Chinese companies.
Tianjin Eco-city, which now has 8,200 registered companies and more than 100,000 people living or working in its 30 sq km area, is now developing into a smart city, with pilot projects such as autonomous public buses and smart carparks.
Singapore and China are also looking to replicate the eco-city's model in other Chinese cities as well as Belt and Road countries.
Chongqing is a relatively new focus and is Singapore's effort to plug into China's ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
The two countries are working on a long-term project that will connect the less-developed western region of China to the rest of the world.
Singapore is providing modern services in the areas of logistics, financial services, aviation, and information and communications technology.
The two sides are also working on a trade corridor that will integrate western China with South-east Asia by connecting Chongqing to Qinzhou in Guangxi by rail, and to Singapore and beyond by sea.
China's BRI is a signature project by President Xi Jinping, whose vision is to create a 21st century Silk Road of overland corridors and shipping lanes.
Six full ministers attended the meeting in Chongqing: Minister for Communications and Information S. Iswaran; Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing; Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli; Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung; Minister for Manpower and Second Minister for Home Affairs Josephine Teo; and Minister for Social and Family Development and Second Minister for National Development Desmond Lee.
Also in the delegation were Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information, and Culture, Community and Youth Sim Ann; Senior Minister of State for Law and Health Edwin Tong; and Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and Social and Family Development Sam Tan.
Mr Heng’s next stop is Tianjin Eco-city on Wednesday. He will end his official visit in Beijing on Thursday, where he will meet several Chinese leaders.
WHAT ARE THE PACTS SIGNED?
1. An agreement between Singapore’s Ministry of Communications and Information and the Shenzhen government on a Smart City initiative that will connect business ecosystems between people and businesses on both sides. It will provide companies and talents from both countries to tap economic opportunities in South-east Asia and the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area.
2. A youth internship exchange programme that provides for 500 students or recent graduates of both countries to spend up to six months a year working for a company of their choice in the host country.
3. A Customs twinning deal to optimise customs clearance along the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative’s New International Land-Sea Trade Corridor through exchange of data and sharing of best practices.
4. An exchange programme for middle- to senior-level officials signed between the two foreign ministries, allowing officials from both sides to make study visits and attend training courses.
5. An agreement to collaborate on developing a 2 sq km demonstration area in Guangzhou Knowledge City into an innovation hub. The private-sector-led project, housing knowledge-based industries, was last year elevated to a state-level collaboration.
6. The setting up of a senior officials’ meeting to jointly promote the development of the New International Land-Sea Trade Corridor. The meeting is meant to help drive areas of cooperation in this project and resolve any issues that may come up.
7. A deal between Ipos International, the expertise and enterprise engagement arm of the Intellectual Property Office of Singapore, and Suzhou Industrial Park to help companies in the park with their overseas intangible asset and IP management.
8. A deal to promote the replication of Tianjin Eco-city’s development experience in other Chinese cities, and in Belt and Road countries.
9. An agreement between the Infocomm Media Development Authority and the Chongqing government to boost International Dedicated Connectivity between the island-state and the south-western Chinese city, which means better connectivity performance.