Last year, Singapore and China commemorated 25 years of diplomatic relations, culminating in the exchange of state visits by Singapore President Tony Tan and Chinese President Xi Jinping. We established an All-Round Cooperative Partnership Progressing with the Times.
Singapore and China have had interactions for many centuries. Singapore has always been part of the Maritime Silk Road. The majority of our (Singapore's) citizens have ancestors from China. We enjoy a longstanding, wide-ranging relationship that transcends politics. The landmark visits by Singapore's first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew (1976) and China's former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping (1978) laid a strong foundation for the modern phase of our bilateral relations, prior to the establishment of formal diplomatic ties in 1990.
Mr Lee Kuan Yew always believed that a strong China that was positively engaged with South-east Asia would strongly benefit the region. That was why he suggested we jointly develop the Suzhou Industrial Park in 1994, our first government-to-government project, to promote the exchange of development experiences.
In 2007, when China's focus shifted to sustainable urbanisation, we embarked on our second government-to-government project - the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City. We have also launched other "private sector-led, government-supported" projects to respond to different aspects of China's development interests, including the Guangzhou Knowledge City, Sichuan Hi-tech Innovation Park, Nanjing Eco Hi-tech Island and Jilin Food Zone.
Last year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and President Xi launched our third government- to-government project, the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative (CCI), during President Xi's state visit to Singapore. The CCI supports China's key development strategies and will draw upon the comparative advantages of Singapore and China to prototype policy innovations and enhance connectivity in the areas of finance, aviation, transport and logistics, and infocommunication technology.
Singapore-China relations have been a pathfinder for China's engagement of the region. We are the first Asian country to conclude a free trade agreement (FTA) with China. Singapore was China's largest foreign investor from 2013 to 2015, and China is our largest trading partner. To support our growing economic ties, we aim to upgrade the FTA by the end of 2016.
Human resource development remains a key pillar of our cooperation. Since the mid-1990s, we have received more than 50,000 Chinese officials and cadres on training and visit programmes. These exchanges facilitate mutual learning and the fostering of friendships. Bilateral cooperation has also broadened to include financial services, social governance and environmental protection, among others.
As China develops, its role in the regional and global system also evolves. Singapore remains a strong proponent of China's integration into the international community. We welcome and support China's new initiatives, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Belt and Road Initiative.
Singapore and China also work closely to promote regional cooperation. This year marks the 25th anniversary of Asean-China dialogue relations. Over the years, Asean-China relations have grown rapidly, based on the principles of mutually beneficial cooperation and Asean centrality. Asean-China cooperation is substantive and broad-based.
We just upgraded the Asean-China FTA and will have a commemorative summit this year. We also designated 2016 as the year of Asean-China educational cooperation. Both Asean and China have a strategic interest in maintaining a peaceful, stable and thriving neighbourhood.
As the current Asean-China dialogue relations coordinator, Singapore will work objectively with all parties to promote positive and forward-looking Asean-China relations. This includes sensibly managing the territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea between China and some Asean member states.
As a non-claimant state, Singapore does not take positions on the claims. We encourage the claimants to exercise self-restraint and resolve their differences peacefully in accordance with international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
The South China Sea is a vital lifeline for the region's survival. All countries whose trade passes through the South China Sea, or whose ships or aircraft use the South China Sea, have a legitimate interest in upholding the right of freedom of navigation and overflight, and international law. As directed by our leaders, Asean and China should fully abide by the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, and expeditiously conclude a Code of Conduct.
Singapore-China relations have come a long way. We are old friends, and China knows that Singapore will always remain steadfast to our old friends. Singapore consistently adheres to our "one-China" policy. The historic meeting between Mr Xi and Mr Ma Ying-jeou in Singapore last year reflects the strong foundation of mutual trust that underpins our bilateral relations, and Singapore's hope to help foster the peaceful development of cross-strait relations.
We have many high-level exchanges that will further strengthen our close ties. Prime Minister Lee has visited China almost every year since becoming prime minister.
I look forward to working with our Chinese friends to build on our special friendship, which is based on mutual trust, respect and understanding established by generations of leaders, and to take our partnership to greater heights.
- The writer is the Minister for Foreign Affairs.
- This article was first published in China Daily yesterday.