“Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s Visit to China (8 to 12 April 2018)” by Lye Liang Fook

2018/40, 11 April 2018

Singapore Prime Minister (PM) Lee Hsien Loong’s working visit to Beijing, Hainan and Shanghai underscores the importance Singapore attaches to maintaining regular exchanges with China at the highest level. Coming just after China’s Party Congress and its “Two Sessions” in October 2017 and March 2018 respectively, PM Lee met with President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang, Vice President Wang Qishan and Shanghai’s Party Secretary Li Qiang. In September 2017, PM Lee had made an official visit to China where he met with Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang and Wang Qishan.

Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang and Li Qiang are either Politburo Standing Committee members or Politburo member. Wang Qishan, a former Politburo Standing Committee member, is regarded as an “old friend” of Singapore, having earlier served as co-chair of the Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation, the highest level body overseeing cooperation between the two countries. In fact, when PM Lee met Premier Li in Beijing, the latter made known that Han Zheng, another Politburo Standing Committee member, would replace Zhang Gaoli as China’s new co-chair of the Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation. This signals that the level of importance China accords to developing its relationship with Singapore remains unchanged.

Secondly, PM Lee’s visit serves to reinforce Singapore’s early and strong support for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a pet project of President Xi Jinping. During his visit, an MOU was signed on promoting collaboration between companies from both countries in third country markets along China’s BRI. The MOU builds on the existing efforts of the two countries to strengthen the link between the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative and the Southern Transport Corridor which will connect China’s overland Silk Road to its maritime Silk Road. Singapore was also among the first batch of countries that signed an agreement to establish the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in Beijing in October 2014. PM Lee’s debut at the 2018 Boao Forum where President Xi delivered a keynote address, strongly affirms Singapore’s support for a China-led initiative. In his forum speech, PM Lee stressed, among other things, the importance of free and open trade, and for trade disputes to be resolved through accommodation as well as within the WTO framework, which seemed to have resonated well with his Chinese audience.

Thirdly, the visit seeks to showcase the broad and substantive relationship between Singapore and China. Apart from the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative, Singapore and China are involved in two other government-to-government projects, namely the Suzhou Industrial Park and Tianjin Eco-city. In particular, with the Tianjin Eco-city celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, further progress is likely in areas such as the unveiling of a Sino-Singapore friendship park modelled after Gardens by the Bay, turning the eco-city into a sensor-rich smart city and coming up with a city-level training space for Singapore and Chinese officials. Also, during PM Lee’s visit, a second MOU was signed between the National Heritage Board and China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage that renewed collaboration in areas such as exhibition and loan exchange, exchange of information on conservation, as well as managing collections, research and publication. In his final stopover in Shanghai, PM Lee was the Guest-of-Honour at the DBS Asian Insights Conference 2018 Leadership Dialogue that not only commemorates the 25th anniversary of DBS’ presence in China but also indicates the growing financial cooperation between the two countries.

Fourthly, the visit aims to further Singapore’s role as ASEAN’s chair in 2018. One of Singapore’s deliverables this year is to establish an ASEAN Smart Cities Network which requires ASEAN to not only work together but also to collaborate with external partners including China which has a comparative advantage in this area. The ASEAN Smart Cities Network further ties in with the 2018 ASEAN-China Year of Innovation. In addition, Singapore, as coordinator of ASEAN-China relations, needs to work closely with other ASEAN Member States as well as China to draft the ASEAN-China Strategic Partnership Vision 2030 statement expected to be ready in November 2018 to chart the future direction of ASEAN-China relations. During his meeting with Premier Li, PM Lee invited the latter to make an official visit to Singapore in conjunction with Li’s attendance at the ASEAN Related Summits in November this year. It was reported that Premier Li had accepted the invitation.

Mr Lye Liang Fook is Senior Fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

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