Singapore-China ties will remain warm under new leaders: PM

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing yesterday. PM Lee said Singapore has been preparing for a transition for a long time, getting younger ministers to actively engage China on va
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing yesterday. PM Lee said Singapore has been preparing for a transition for a long time, getting younger ministers to actively engage China on various bilateral platforms, as the country takes steps for a successor to be at the helm.PHOTO: MCI

The relationship is in both countries' interests and not personal to a few or to particular leaders, he says

The warm ties between China and Singapore will continue even after new leaders take the helm in Singapore, as the relationship is in both countries' interests and not personal to any particular leader, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

Singapore has been preparing for a transition for a long time, getting younger ministers to actively engage China on various bilateral platforms, as the country takes steps for a successor to be at the helm, said PM Lee.

"I hope this (leadership transition) will go smoothly, and I think the Chinese side very much wants the relationship and the friendship to continue," he said.

"It's in the interest of both countries; it's not personal to a few or to particular leaders."

PM Lee was responding to a question on how his government's leadership transition would affect bilateral ties, during a wrap-up interview with Singapore reporters on his five-day visit to the Chinese capital, where he attended the second Belt and Road Forum.

Earlier, he met China's top two leaders - President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang - and witnessed the signing of five agreements on Belt and Road cooperation between both countries.

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat's promotion to deputy prime minister was announced last week, in a move that clearly signals he will be Singapore's next prime minister.

He will become Singapore's sole deputy prime minister tomorrow, when both current deputy prime ministers - Mr Teo Chee Hean and Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam - become senior ministers.

 
 

PM Lee noted that besides Mr Heng, other younger leaders have also been actively engaging with China, on the provincial level and at the apex bilateral platform: the Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation (JCBC).

They include Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, Social and Family Development Minister Desmond Lee, as well as Second Minister for Finance and Education Indranee Rajah.

PM Lee also said Singapore has told China that Mr Heng would be taking over as co-chair of the JCBC from Mr Teo.

"The Chinese side has said 'yes' - they welcome this, they know him because he has interacted with them on many occasions, including when President Xi and Premier Li came to visit Singapore and he was the accompanying minister. So they have a direct feel of him."

On his own relationship with Mr Xi, PM Lee said he was "very comfortable" working with the Chinese leader and hoped this would continue. "I have always enjoyed my meetings with him."

He added that they had discussed the direction of their countries' relationship and how it fits into "China's broader scheme of things".

Turning to the forum - which he was attending for the first time - with almost 40 world leaders, PM Lee said Singapore made suggestions on how the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) can take a more sustainable approach going forward.

The BRI is China's mega plan to build a network of ports, railways, roads and trading hubs linking it to Europe, Africa and parts of Asia.

Mr Xi had pledged during the forum to make the BRI a project that is clean, green and financially sustainable, hitting back at criticism of his signature policy.

PM Lee said: "(Those are) the right objectives to aim for. Of course, the critical thing is to see them (implemented) in the actual projects which come to fruition."

On some analysts casting Singapore and Hong Kong as rival financial centres for BRI projects, he said it was not a zero-sum game.

"We have not quite the same roles; our links are in South-east Asia and wider to South Asia and Australia and New Zealand. Hong Kong's links are to China and more focused that way," he said.

"I don't see us as in intense competition with them. I think there is scope for both."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 30, 2019, with the headline 'S'pore-China ties will remain warm under new leaders: PM'. Print Edition | Subscribe