SINGAPORE: Singapore-China ties have “transformed beyond recognition” since diplomatic relations were established in 1990 and there is “tremendous potential” still, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Mr Lee was speaking to China’s official Xinhua news agency on Monday (Apr 22) ahead of his visit to Beijing to attend the second Belt and Road Forum on Friday. He was asked by Xinhua to take stock of ties between Singapore and China, with next year marking 30 years of diplomatic relations between both countries.
Laying out the transformation, Mr Lee cited how economic ties between both countries have grown tremendously.
"Our relations with China have transformed beyond recognition since we established diplomatic relations in 1990," the Prime Minister said.
"The trade has grown tremendously; China has become our biggest trading partner. According to Chinese statistics, we are your biggest foreign investor."
Singapore is also a major destination for Chinese investments in the Belt and Road region, accounting for one quarter of such investments, he noted.
INVESTMENTS IN CHINA
Singapore’s investments in China span from coastal regions, big cities and increasingly, to inland provinces, Mr Lee added. Government-to-government cooperation has also focused on strategic projects that have broader significance.
This can be seen from the Suzhou Industrial Park in 1990s which focused on industrialisation, the Tianjin Eco-City in the 2000s that emphasised sustainable development to the latest Chongqing Connectivity Initiative, which aims to drive growth in China’s less-developed western region.
"So as China's economy has developed and your needs have changed, the projects have also evolved, and we focus on different areas," said Mr Lee.
Looking forward, there is "tremendous potential" to grow ties.
"Certainly on the Belt and Road, we hope to be able to play a constructive part on financial services, on third country investments, on human resources development," Mr Lee said.
"It is a project which will take many years to bring to fruition, probably will be one which will never have an ending point. But one which I think Singapore is well-placed to make modest contribution."
When it comes to regional cooperation, Singapore did its best to advance relations between ASEAN and China during its time as coordinator, while both countries are also part of the proposed trade pact dubbed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
"We hope that all these will enable China to integrate constructively and peacefully into the regional economy and into the global trading and strategic system," said Mr Lee.
“So, the opportunities are there,” he added.
"The key is China's overall strategy as it moves forward to develop relations with the other major powers in a constructive, stable, and mutually beneficial way, which adjusts to the changing circumstances and the changing needs of the different countries, and enables this fundamental shift in the global balance to take place in a peaceful and stable manner, which will not lead to tensions or worst, conflict.
"If that can be done, then I think Singapore-China relations will prosper."
Mr Lee was also asked for his take on the importance of the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative for Singapore and the region, and whether it will have an effect on partnerships between China and other Belt and Road countries.
Explaining why the third Sino-Singapore joint government project is “very important”, he noted that China’s western provinces carry a lot of potential but connectivity is an issue.
“The costs are high, the physical connections are not so convenient … and the overheads hinder economic growth,” said Mr Lee.
“But if we have this initiative and we are able to cut down on the overheads, save time, make the connections more convenient in both directions, then I think that will make a big difference to Chongqing, to Sichuan, to the other provinces in western China.”
It will also have a “very considerable difference” for Singapore, which has so far struck good connections with China’s coastal cities and provinces but remains in the developing stages when it comes to inland provinces.
Mr Lee added that the international land-sea transport connectivity – a network of railway links from western China to the port of Qinzhou in southern Guangxi, which further connects to Southeast Asia by sea – is one important element of the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative.
“That connects Singapore to Chongqing but more than that, it connects the Silk Road Economic Belt and the new Maritime Silk Road. That way, I think it will very much fit in with China's plans (and) therefore, we see this as a very ambitious and important initiative,” he said
“We believe (that) if it works, it will be a service to all the countries in the region and will benefit China as well.”