SINGAPORE: Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has called on ASEAN to work together with China on free trade and maintaining peace in the South China Sea.
Delivering the 44th Singapore Lecture on Tuesday (Nov 13), he confirmed that leaders are hoping to conclude talks on a 16-country trade pact – known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) - next year.
China also hopes consultations on the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea can be completed in three years.
Amid the backdrop of a trade war with the United States, trade was front and centre of Premier Li’s speech as he reiterated the call to protect free trade and multilateralism.
READ: ASEAN, China agree on draft text that will form basis of negotiations on South China Sea code of conduct
This is something that countries like Singapore have thrived on and has been critical for China’s opening up.
“China is ready to work with all parties to discuss how we can improve free trade and make globalisation healthier,” said Mr Li.
“We are also willing to work with others on how we can make trade fairer so that free trade will receive a stronger boost and grow at a higher level. We need to send out a strong message internationally.”
But while the Chinese leader made no direct reference to the US in his speech, he was asked about the China-US relationship during the question and answer session that followed.
“It is of course the most consequential relationship of the 21st century. But it is not in a good place now. What is the cause of the friction? Is it just trade? How do you see the way forward?” asked Singapore’s former ambassador to the United States Chan Heng Chee.
Mr Li replied that the China and US relationship has gone through ups and downs but, on the whole, has seen stable development.
“I think that likewise as long as we uphold equality to manage disagreements and differences, and expand common interests and benefits, this will benefit both countries and the world,” said Mr Li.
“As long as we respect each other’s core interests and major concerns, then we will be able to manage and even resolve these disagreements.”
Mr Li is making his first bilateral visit to Singapore as Chinese Premier and will attend the ASEAN meetings taking place in the country.
READ: Commentary: Temper expectations about RCEP free trade agreement
His visit is widely seen to rally support for the RCEP - a trade pact that involves the 10 ASEAN states and six other Asia-Pacific countries, including China, and covers a third of global trade.
Talks are set to take place on Wednesday and the Chinese Premier confirmed that leaders hope to conclude negotiations on the pact next year.
He said that a peaceful environment is needed to push free trade forward and expressed China's willingness to work with ASEAN countries to maintain stability in the South China Sea, adding that he hopes consultations on a code of conduct can be completed in three years.
The territorial dispute has often been a hot topic at ASEAN summits, as China and several member states face competing claims.
China has also come under criticism for its militarisation of islands in the waters.
Mr Li stressed twice in his speech that China does not and never would have the intent of occupying other nations.
“I know that many of you are wondering that given what is going on, what is China’s attitude towards other countries and its neighbours?” said Mr Li.
“I want to reaffirm here that China will stay firm on the course of peaceful development. In the Chinese culture, we value peace as of paramount importance and we don’t do to others what we don’t want others to do to us.”
Mr Li also called on the world to view China in an objective light, adding that the country is concentrating on its development.
Premier Li was asked about how China and ASEAN can continue to extend trade, beyond, for example, the RCEP trade pact.
The Chinese Premier said there is more room for cooperation as China continues to open up various sectors.
"Since my meetings with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and other leaders yesterday, I believe I have answered all your concerns, but for me I have only one request for our Singaporean friends – that’s for you to invest more,” said Mr Li.
The Chinese Premier's visit comes as China marks the 40th anniversary of its reform and opening up of its economy. Mr Li reiterated his message that China will not stop opening its doors to the world.
He also assured businesses that taxes and fees will be cut, fair regulations stepped up and that China will crack down on any intellectual property rights infringements.
“If any of you encounter any unfair treatment when investing in China or any unfair treatment when investing in the business environment, feel free to contact any of the ministers here and even directly to me,” said Mr Li.