Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is to make an official visit to China later this month, as Chinese President Xi Jinping urged the two countries to step up cooperation. Lee will visit China from September 19 to 21 at the invitation of Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying announced on Friday. He will hold talks with Chinese leaders in Beijing and also travel to Fujian province. Singapore swears in first female president amid criticism about restrictions on candidates and lack of vote Meanwhile in a congratulatory message to Singapore’s new president, Halimah Yacob, on Friday, Xi pledged to step up cooperation between China and the city state. The message came a day after Halimah was inaugurated, a further sign of a thawing in relations after ties were strained last year over the South China Sea. Lee did not attend China’s belt and road trade initiative summit in Beijing in May, suggesting relations between the two sides were tense. Xi said the two countries had made remarkable progress in their cooperation, with sound results in various fields since they established diplomatic relations 27 years ago, Xinhua reported. He said he highly valued the development of Sino-Singaporean relations and would work with Halimah to strengthen cooperation between the two nations. Observers said China would be cautious in handling its relations with Singapore as the city state would take the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations next year. “China still hopes that Singapore can play a mediating role to lower tensions between Beijing and other [South China Sea] claimant states in Asean,” said Xu Liping, a Southeast Asian affairs expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “Beijing will push for Singaporean cooperation on the belt and road initiative and to boost mutual economic ties.” Expelled Chinese-American academic Huang Jing leaves Singapore Halimah, 63, is the first Malay president of Singapore for almost five decades. The last was Yusof Ishak, who was president from 1965 to 1970. Malays make up 13 per cent of Singapore’s population of 3.9 million. In her inauguration address on Thursday, Halimah said she would serve all Singaporeans regardless of race, language or religion. Territorial disputes in the South China Sea have strained relations between Singapore and China. Although Singapore is not a claimant in the disputed waters, Beijing has accused the city state of backing the United States and the Philippines over an arbitration ruling in The Hague in 2016 which invalidated China’s claim over most of the South China Sea. Beijing has refused to recognise the ruling. In June, Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan visited Beijing and the two sides agreed to provide training to officials from nations along the belt and road route, and to set up a trade corridor between Southeast Asia and western China. China ready to improve ties with Singapore, Xi Jinping tells Lee Hsien Loong at G20 summit Singapore accounted for one-third of China’s outward investment in the belt and road countries last year, data from China’s commerce ministry showed. Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua also congratulated Halimah, saying on Thursday that Singapore was a key member of Asean and Beijing held its ties with the city state in high regard.