DIPLOMACY

Singapore gets on board China’s Silk Road push as ties get back on track

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 July, 2017, 11:19pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 July, 2017, 11:33pm

Singapore’s rocky relations with China are “on track” with plans for high-level official visits and upgrades to a free-trade pact.

Singapore also planned to ­expand its involvement in the “Belt and Road Initiative”, China’s ambitious project to revive trade along ancient Silk Road routes, the city state’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, said at the two-day FutureChina business forum last week.

Asked about the state of ties between the two countries, Lee said: “[They have] always been on track.”

Lee said the belt and road scheme, the main focus of the forum, was a chance for Singapore to become a “base [for other countries] to jump off into the whole ­region”.

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“The belt and road is the way in which China can grow its links with the world, and also grow its influence in the world but in a constructive sort of way,” he said on Friday, the forum’s last day.

“The more China does business through the belt and road with countries in the region, the more opportunities there will be to use Singapore for this.”

Lee rejected suggestions that the initiative could make other countries beholden to China.

“It is not a bloc. It is not a closed group. It is an open, welcoming, free, intensification of mutually beneficial linkages,” he said.

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The prime minister also said he had a “good discussion” with President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg early this month. The two discussed a government-to-government project in Chongqing and Singapore’s role as chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations next year.

“We [also] talked about how things are in the South China Sea and I congratulated the president on the 20th anniversary of [the handover] in Hong Kong,” Lee said. “He explained to me how he saw Hong Kong and why he was satisfied with the progress which had been made.”

Singapore’s ties with China have been tested over the last year by tensions in the South China Sea and the impounding in Hong Kong of several military vehicles being shipped back to the city state from Taiwan.

Lee said Chinese officials “appreciate our point of view”.

“I understand they have a different point of view but they appreciate where we stand and why have to take that position as Singapore,” he said.

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Lee said ties with Beijing were now “moving faster”, and he looked forward to meeting Premier Li Keqiang during a visit to Singapore. No date has been set for the trip.

Addressing the conference a day earlier, Lee’s deputy, Teo Chee Hean, said freedom of navigation through key choke points in Asian waterways like the Malacca and Singapore straits was crucial to the success of the new Silk Road trade plan.

Teo also said China and Singapore were working towards “an upgrade” of a bilateral free-trade deal first inked in 2009.

Observers said comments by leaders of both countries in recent months signalled a warming in ­relations.

Lee also said he hoped Singapore would continue to punch above its weight as a key Asian economy even amid fierce competition from a rising China.

“I do not accept the principle that ‘anything that I can do, they can do better’,” he said.