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Five things to look out for when Singapore’s leader Lee Hsien Loong visits China

Visit of city state’s leader could help countries get their relationship back on track after recent hiccups

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 September, 2017, 2:41pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 October, 2017, 6:19pm

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will begin an official three-day visit to China on Tuesday.

His visit follows an invitation by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and is seen as a signal of how the relationship between China and Singapore is developing following a series of hiccups in recent months.

These include the ongoing disputes over the South China Sea – although Singapore itself has no claims on the waterway – and the absence of Lee from Beijing’s “Belt and Road” summit in May.

As Singapore is the chairman of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations next year, how Beijing manages its ties with the city state will be crucial to the relationship between China and the Southeast Asian nations – some of which have their own claims to the South China Sea.

Here are five things to watch for during Lee’s trip:

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1. Signs that bilateral relations are back on track

Sino-Singaporean relations have been strained, with Beijing accusing the city state of siding with the United States and honouring an international tribunal ruling in July last year that dismissed most of Beijing’s claims to the South China Sea.

In November last year, Hong Kong seized nine Singaporean infantry carrier vehicles en route from Taiwan on a container ship that had been used in military exercises.

Singapore has been conducting regular military exercises with Taiwan since 1974 under the Starlight Project.

But there are signs that China and Singapore are working to get their bilateral ties back to normal.

In a congratulatory message to Singapore’s newly inaugurated president Halimah Yacob on last Friday, President Xi Jinping said China was ready to enhance bilateral relations with Singapore.

Hongyi Lai, a China international relations scholar at Britain’s University of Nottingham, said: “The leaders of both sides are trying to show that the relationship is still on track, and they’re still trying to make an effort in their bilateral relations,” he said.

2. Prelude to the next Asean meeting

Lee’s trip to China comes ahead of Singapore’s chairmanship of the Asean meeting next year, while continuing its role as coordinator between the regional group and China.

Singapore’s three-year term as country coordinator between China and Asean began in 2015 and will end at the next meeting.

Observers said managing its relations with Singapore was important for Beijing in maintaining positive relationships with other Southeast Asian nations.

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3. “Belt and Road” investment

China has shown interest in bidding for a high-speed train project linking Singapore with the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur.

The tender for the 350km high-speed rail project is due at the end of this year, with completion expected in 2026.

The project is expected to cut travel time between the Malaysian capital and the city state – currently seven hours by train – to 90 minutes. A successful Chinese bid would bolster its “Belt and Road” ambitions to build transport links connecting China to the rest of Asia, Europe and Africa.

Singapore accounted for one-third of China’s outward investment in “Belt and Road” countries last year, data from China’s commerce ministry showed.

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4. New progress on the old projects

The two leaders are expected to discuss the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative – a joint project to boost regional connectivity by providing a direct trade route between China and Southeast Asia.

According to Ravi Menon, managing director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, trade between Chongqing in southwest China and Singapore has been growing at an annual average of 5.2 per cent in the last five years, while annual direct investment between the two cities has surged during this period from 7.4 billion yuan (US$1.1 billion) to 22.2 billion yuan.

5. Who he will meet?

Apart from meeting Xi, Lee will be welcomed by Premier Liand also meet Chairman of the National People’s Congress Zhang Dejiang in Beijing, according to a statement from Singapore’s Prime Minister’s Office released on Saturday.

After visiting Beijing, Lee will visit Xiamen in southeastern Fujian province for a lunch with the local party chief You Quan.

Lee will also attend an event to mark the completion of the refurbishment of the facade of the OCBC Building, owned by Singapore’s longest established local bank.