SINGAPORE: The economies of Southeast Asia and China need to stay open and connected to one another to sustain the existing economic dynamism, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Wednesday (Nov 14).
Speaking at the ASEAN-China Summit, he gave suggestions on how to build upon the current “positive momentum” in relations between the regional grouping and China. Singapore was the immediate past coordinator for dialogue relations between the two parties.
This can be done by fully implementing the ASEAN-China Free Trade Area Upgrade Protocol, which is expected to give businesses easier access to the Chinese market, he said.
During his opening remarks at the summit, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang also spoke about the Upgrade Protocol, likening it to Singapore remodelling its old buildings while building new ones.
“We are upgrading our existing FTA, not starting anything new,” he said.
Working towards the full liberalisation of the ASEAN-China Air Transport Agreement, mobilising private capital and using international financial institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Asian Development Bank to close ASEAN’s infrastructure financing gap will also help, Mr Lee said.
“ASEAN and China have benefited immensely from a free, open, and rules-based multilateral trading system,” he said.
He added that China has been ASEAN’s top trading partner for eight consecutive years. In 2017, ASEAN’s merchandise trade with China reached US$442 billion (S$610 billion), accounting for 17 per cent of ASEAN’s total merchandise trade.
ASEAN and China should continue to identify new areas of collaboration and work together to bring their people and economies closer, he added. He said the ASEAN-China Joint Statement on Science, Technology and Innovation that was adopted on Wednesday is a positive step.
“I also welcome China’s proposals to deepen cooperation with the ASEAN Smart Cities Network,” he added. The network’s goal is to improve the lives of ASEAN citizens using technology.
Mr Lee also said that ASEAN and China need to continue to engage in dialogue and practical cooperation to enhance peace and stability in the region, as well as deepen mutual trust and confidence.
On the South China Sea, in which China has overlapping territorial and maritime claims with several ASEAN members, including Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, Mr Lee said: “I am encouraged by the good progress made in the negotiations of the Code of Conduct (COC) since its official commencement earlier this year.”
READ: ASEAN, China agree on draft text that will form basis of negotiations on South China Sea code of conduct
Premier Li also said that while the two sides have some differences, they have never shied away from them.
“We have been working to handle our differences, in a proper way, and we have set a great example for that effort. We have found the way to properly manage and properly diffuse differences,” he said, giving the example of cooperation on the South China Sea issue.
Premier Li also said that ASEAN and China have agreed to finish the first reading of the text in 2019, and that China is ready to work with all ASEAN countries towards concluding COC consultations within three years.
Mr Lee echoed the same commitment, but said there would be complex and challenging negotiations. “In the meantime, all parties should maintain restraint, keep a conducive and stable environment for the COC negotiations to proceed smoothly,” he said.