SINGAPORE - Singapore and China will conclude the upgrade of their free trade agreement by the end of this year, said Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, giving certainty for the first time to when the new deal will be sealed.
Talks over the upgrade have taken nearly three years. The deal will enhance a trade pact that came into force in 2009, and provide Singapore businesses with greater trade facilitation and investment protection in China.
It will also feature more cooperation in areas such as legal and financial services, as well as e-commerce and the environment.
Speaking to reporters on Thursday (Sept 20) at the end of China and Singapore's key meeting on bilateral cooperation, Mr Teo said he hopes both sides can sign the improved FTA when Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visits Singapore for the 33rd Asean Summit in November.
Singapore, which was the first Asian country to have a comprehensive bilateral FTA with China, has been China's largest foreign investor since 2013.
This year's Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation (JCBC) meeting, in its 14th year, saw a number of firsts. It was the first appearance by Chinese Vice-Premier Han Zheng as co-chair of the session. Mr Han had taken over the reins from former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli, who retired last October.
The meeting also saw the introduction of the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative as a standalone agenda item, signalling the importance of this China-led developmental masterplan in future collaborations between the two countries.
Mr Han, in his opening remarks at the JCBC, called the initiative "a major opportunity for the development of China-Singapore relations", and said China was willing to work with Singapore from a strategic and long-term perspective.
Another first: The introduction of Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat as deputy co-chair of the JCBC as well as the Joint Steering Councils for the three government-to-government projects: Suzhou Industrial Park, Tianjin Eco-city and Chongqing Connectivity Initiative. Mr Heng has been touted as a potential deputy prime minister, and a contender to be the next PM.
Mr Teo said even though it was Mr Han's first outing at this annual meeting, they had good rapport. Mr Han was promoted to the all-powerful seven-member Politburo Standing Committee last October, propelling him into the top leadership ranks of the country.
"China has just had its 19th Party Congress and Two Sessions, so they have a new leadership in position. We are also transitioning our leadership in Singapore and it (JCBC) provides the leadership on both sides to get to know each other and work together on substantive projects. This will take our relationship, on a solid footing, into the future," said Mr Teo.
In his opening remarks, Mr Teo said the annual meeting's agenda has evolved to keep pace with the two countries' development and priorities. Both sides struck several agreements, such as establishing a Singapore-Shanghai cooperation council at the ministerial and mayoral level, as well as an internship programme for students of both countries.
The Monetary Authority of Singapore will also work with its Chinese counterpart to strengthen cross-border supervision, given the increased activities of investors and financial institutions in both markets. The financial authorities of both countries will also look into facilitating investment flows to support growing interest, as well as cooperate on fintech matters.
Mr Teo said China and Singapore also agreed to begin negotiations on a mutual legal assistance treaty for criminal matters, which will boost legal protection along the Belt and Road, which aims to mirror ancient trade links between China and the world over land and sea.
On the cultural front, both sides are looking at conducting research on the historical and archaeological value of a collection of treasures from the Tang Dynasty, recovered from a shipwreck found in 1998 off Belitung Island east of Sumatra. The collection belongs to the Asian Civilisations Museum and has been on exhibition there.
Officials from both sides also took stock of the progress made on the three government-to-government projects in Suzhou, Tianjin and Chongqing. The next step would be for China and Singapore to take the experience gained from running these joint projects to a third country, said Mr Teo. He was joined by a dozen ministers at the meeting, including Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli and Manpower Minister Josephine Teo.
Seven MOUs were also inked, among them a partnership between the National Arts Council (NAC) and the China National Arts Fund to promote exchanges and collaboration among artists and arts groups from both countries.
NAC CEO Rosa Daniel said both sides have a lot to offer. "We hope to share Singapore's multilingual and multicultural approach to artistic expression with China artists and audiences," she said. "This is also an added opportunity for our artists to build critical networks and deepen their artistic practice through skills exchange with the Chinese, such as residencies, workshops and masterclasses."