Singapore should not be complacent in engaging China, as it is not the same "tenuous and hesitant" country that it was on the world stage 25 years ago, when it started diplomatic ties with the city-state, said President Tony Tan Keng Yam.
Bilateral ties are now a two-way street, with Singapore learning as much from China as China does from Singapore, noted Dr Tan during an interview with Singapore media yesterday, as his six-day state visit drew to a close.
Singapore must work hard to stay relevant to the Asian giant, he said, by enhancing collaborations such as upgrading the China-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (CSFTA) and exploring a third government- to-government project in China.
During Dr Tan's trip, he met important Chinese leaders including President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang and Mr Yu Zhengsheng, a top political adviser.
"One of the positive results of the meeting with Mr Xi is that both of us agree that we will work positively towards upgrading the CSFTA. So there is no doubt of it now - the signal will be sent down to the officials," Dr Tan said.
RAISE TIES TO NEW HEIGHTS
We cannot be complacent. We have a special and close relationship with China. We have to continue to work at it, bring it to new levels, upgrade it, recognise the new changes in Singapore and in China, and bring our bilateral cooperation to new levels.
PRESIDENT TONY TAN KENG YAM, on Singapore's relationship with China
"The first step will be to have this scoping study, which should be launched immediately and, I hope, finalised expeditiously."
He noted that upgrading the CSFTA, which first came into effect in 2009, is important because there are more than 6,000 Chinese companies in Singapore and thousands of Singapore companies in China.
Dr Tan's visit came as China's swift advancement has raised concerns about the fading role of Singapore, after the Republic played a key part in helping China to modernise its economy in the early years of the country's development, through joint projects such as the Suzhou Industrial Park, which was started in 1994. Singapore has also acted as China's interlocutor with Western countries.
Acknowledging this concern, Dr Tan said: "China is different today. This is the second largest economy in the world, with dynamic enterprises, and much bigger than ours... They've caught up with Singapore and, in fact, one must expect that they'll surpass us in many ways because of their talent and resources."
He stressed that the Republic has to constantly evolve and adapt to deal with the changing needs of both countries. "We could become irrelevant if we do nothing."
Finding success in collaborations with China, he said, will hinge on identifying issues of common interest and concern. These may include urbanisation, infocommunications technology and governance.
Singapore also has to look to raise cooperation to new levels, even if the two sides now enjoy a "special and close" relationship, said Dr Tan. "It requires a lot of work because China is a huge country."
On the CSFTA, he said the next step is to define the scope of the upgrade. New elements could include more comprehensive cooperation in services. "Trade in services is broader. It encompasses many areas, so we've got to try to tie it down to specific areas," he said.
Another closely watched bilateral project is the third government- to-government project. With the theme "modern connectivity and modern services", it was first proposed by China in 2013 and will be sited in its less developed western region. Singapore is exploring sectors like financial services and civil aviation for this project, noted Dr Tan, adding that it gives the two countries another reason to expedite the CSFTA's upgrading.
When asked if an announcement can be expected on the government-to government project when Mr Xi makes his return state visit to Singapore later this year, he said: "I'm sure we will work towards it."
Dr Tan returned home yesterday.