PM Lee reiterates that Singapore is not a Chinese society, ahead of his trip to China

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In speaking to the People’s Daily ahead of his five-day working visit to the Chinese capital of Beijing, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong again brought home the point that Singapore is not a Chinese society. To a question on cultural ties, Mr Lee said more Chinese are visiting Singapore because it is not another Chinese city.

People’s Daily: According to Singapore Lianhe Zaobao’s report, China has overtaken Indonesia to become the source country for the largest number of tourists entering Singapore. What are your comments regarding this? Chinese make up the majority of Singapore’s population, hence a lot of PRC Chinese have a natural affinity towards Singapore. You have also received a Chinese education before. What are your views on the historical and cultural linkages between Singapore and China?
PM Lee: China has a population of almost 1,400 million people. The middle class has grown rapidly. Millions of Chinese are travelling overseas for business or leisure. They can be seen everywhere in the world.
Cultural and language similarities make Singapore a popular destination for Chinese tourists. We welcome them. Frequent exchanges between our peoples keep our ties strong and enable us to do more together.
At the same time, Chinese tourists visit Singapore precisely because we are not another Chinese city. They find Singapore a fascinating multiracial and multi-religious country with different cultures and ways of life. Different ethnic groups and religious faiths co-exist side by side, harmoniously. We hope that when Chinese tourists visit us, they can see and appreciate how Singapore is unique, and how our multi-racial national identity influences our place in the world and relations with other countries.”

Mr Lee made the same points in September last year during his visit to Xiamen, China. PM Lee said then that Singapore has to take advantage of its “cultural affinity” with China and yet “be quite clear that we are multiracial and we are not a Chinese society.”

He made those comments after a low point in relationship with China. In November 2016, nine armoured military vehicles that were being shipped from Taiwan to Singapore were seized in Hong Kong, and Mr Lee was notably absent at China’s signature event, Belt and Road Forum.

Asked for his assessment of the trip to Xiamen, Mr Lee said that Chinese leaders are “keen on improving relations” and they see Singapore and China as having a “basic alignment” of the two nations’ interests and overall objectives.

He added that the relationship has to be “taken forward from generation to generation”, which is why he brought younger ministers with him on this trip. Mr Lee said that he will also bring non-Chinese ministers on trips to China as it shows Singapore is “different but friendly”.


The following is the transcript of his full interview to the People’s Daily.


Question 1: Singapore-China relations

People’s Daily: Singapore-China relationship can be considered to have advanced with times in 2017, achieving positive progress in various areas of cooperation. You have made an official visit to China in September last year, reaching consensus with President Xi Jinping on the development of bilateral relationship between China and Singapore. What is your outlook for Singapore-China relationship in 2018?

PM Lee Hsien Loong: Singapore-China relations are strong. The foundations were laid down by our leaders long before we established formal diplomatic relations in 1990. This year marks the 40th anniversary of Mr Deng Xiaoping’s visit to Singapore. That visit took place two years after Mr Lee Kuan Yew visited China in 1976. Our bilateral relations have since flourished with regular exchanges of visits, including the visit by President Xi Jinping in 2015 marking the 25th Anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between Singapore and China.

President Xi Jinping said that Singapore and China share common interests in many areas. I agree. We are two very different countries, in terms of population, demographic composition, economic size, and geography. But we have managed to work together to pursue win-win cooperation over a wide range of issues, from trade and investment to social governance, human resource development, financial services, legal and judicial matters.

Since my meeting with President Xi last September, China has held the 19th Party Congress and Lianghui. These meetings set strategic directions for China’s development and foreign policy in a new era. China will play a growing role in regional and global issues. Singapore will continue to support China’s constructive participation in the regional architecture as well as the international system.

Our developing partnership is reflected in our three Government-to-Government projects. The Suzhou Industrial Park facilitated China’s early industrialisation efforts and has been replicated in other Chinese cities. We then embarked on the Tianjin Eco-City to support China’s sustainable and green develop-ment. The third Government-to-Government project, the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative, is a priority demonstration project under China’s Belt and Road (B&R) Initiative, Western Region Development and Yangtze River Economic Belt strategies.

For this year, we have a full bilateral calendar. We are working to complete the upgrading of the China-Singapore Free Trade Agreement. Singapore will host the annual Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation (co-chaired at the DPM level) and the Second Legal and Judicial Roundtable, while China will host the Social Governance Forum and Forum on Leadership. Through these high-level platforms and many other exchanges, we hope to take our partnership forward.

Question 2: ASEAN—China Relations

People’s Daily: ASEAN is a priority for China’s diplomacy with its neighbouring regions. Singapore takes on the role of ASEAN Chairmanship this year, and continues to undertake the role of country coordinator for ASEAN-China relations for the first half of the year. How does Singapore plan to promote the further development of the ASEAN-China relationship?

PM Lee: China is one of ASEAN’s most important and substantive dialogue partners. China is the top trading partner for most ASEAN Member States. ASEAN is a significant grouping whose cohesion and effectiveness fosters a conducive regional environment for China. The ASEAN-China FTA is one of the world’s largest free trade areas. It is therefore in the interest of both sides that relations remain strong, stable and mutually beneficial.

As ASEAN Chair as well as Country Coordinator for ASEAN-China Dialogue Relations, Singapore will continue to expand and deepen cooperation between the two sides. We upgraded the ACFTA in 2015, and are now working towards the full implementation of the upgrade Protocol. Deepening economic links and improving connectivity will help us to reach the target of US$1 trillion in ASEAN-China trade by 2020.

This year ASEAN and China mark the 15th Anniversary of our Strategic Partnership. Singapore is working with fellow ASEAN Member States and China to chart the future direction of the ASEAN-China relationship through the ASEAN-China Strategic Partnership Vision 2030 statement, which we hope to issue in November 2018.

We have also designated 2018 as the ASEAN-China Year of Innovation. This fits in with Singapore’s ASEAN Chairmanship theme of “Resilience and Innovation”. One of our Chairmanship deliverables is to establish an ASEAN Smart Cities Network. China has the largest number of smart cities in the world, with more than 500 smart city projects underway. We can learn much from China’s experience. We look forward to partnering China in this area to create tangible benefits for our peoples and businesses.

Question 3: Belt & Road Initiative

People’s Daily: One of the themes for the “Boao Forum for Asia 2018” is “Globalisation and the Belt & Road”; the establishment of Belt and Road is currently also an important component of Singapore-China cooperation. What do you think are the priorities areas where Singapore’s development strategy and the “Belt and Road” initiative align?

PM Lee: Singapore is an early and strong supporter of China’s Belt and Road (B&R) Initiative. The Initiative will benefit many countries that need more and better infrastructure. It is also compatible with keeping the regional architecture and international system open and inclusive. Thus Singapore and China have agreed to make the B&R Initiative a focal point in our bilateral relations.

We have identified several areas for cooperation under the B&R Initiative. The first is infrastructure connectivity. We have developed the CCI- Southern Transport Corridor (CCI-STC), which will link Chongqing to Qinzhou port (Beibu Gulf, Guangxi) in the south by rail, and from Qinzhou to Singapore and beyond by sea. The CCI-STC will create a direct connection between the overland New Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, enhancing multi-modal connectivity from Western China to Southeast Asia and the rest of the world. We are also exploring linking up our Single Electronic Windows to support the trade flows along the CCI-STC.

The second area is financial connectivity. Singapore is an international financial centre, one of the largest offshore RMB centres in the world. Singapore banks are actively helping Chinese companies tap the B&R Initiative and expand into Southeast Asia. Chinese banks in Singapore have committed S$100 billion to finance Singaporean and Chinese companies involved in B&R projects, including issuing project bonds to support B&R financing needs. Singapore’s financial centre can also play a useful role in structuring and providing specialised insurance coverage for B&R infrastructure projects. Today, two-thirds of Southeast Asia infra¬structure projects are arranged by Singapore-based project finance teams.

The third priority area is third country collaboration. Many Chinese companies use Singapore as a base for their operations in the region. We can draw on each other’s strengths to jointly develop commercially feasible projects in third countries along the Belt and Road and provide training to officials from B&R participating countries.

Finally, we can work together to offer legal and dispute resolution services to resolve cross border commercial disputes. The strong record of project financing in Singapore is supported by our reputable and credible legal system which has a full suite of mediation, arbitration and litigation services for commercial disputes. By providing investors more options, we will also give them more confidence to pursue cross-border projects.

Question 4: Regional Trade Arrangements

People’s Daily: Singapore is currently advancing the Comprehensive Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) with ten other countries, and is also negotiating the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) with 15 other countries including China. What are your views on the relationship between these different regional trade arrangements in the Asia-Pacific region?

PM Lee: Globalisation and international trade have underpinned the growth and prosperity of many countries, including Singapore and China. But in some countries, the political mood is shifting against them. The US has been a longstanding advocate of free trade and economic multilateralism. However, it has recently taken a radically different approach towards trade, and has taken specific steps to protect domestic industries and reduce its large bilateral trade deficits. These measures have inevitably put pressure on the US’ relations with China and other countries

As a small nation with an open economy, Singapore is heavily dependent on international trade. If unilateral and tit-for-tat actions escalate into trade wars, the multilateral trading system that has brought countries prosperity for decades will be severely undermined. There will be no winners in a trade war.

China decision to join the WTO in 2001 was a bold one. Since then, China has committed to abide by multilateral rules, including submitting to WTO dispute settlement mechanism. China has benefited from doing this, as have other countries.

Since 2001 China’s economy has developed greatly. China’s share of global GDP and trade volume have also increased dramatically. It is therefore natural that other countries expect China to take on more commitments and contribute more to the global system, by further opening market access for trade in goods and services, and liberalising rules for foreign investments into China. These steps would better match China’s present stage of development. China can do so on a multilateral basis, or through FTAs with regional partners

The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) are complementary building blocks towards an eventual Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific. These two agreements will boost economic growth in the Asia-Pacific and promote a seamless flow of goods, services and business that will benefit all countries. The CPTPP, which was recently signed, is an open and inclusive agreement. We welcome China, and others, to join the CPTPP when they are ready.

We also hope that the RCEP can be concluded soon. The RCEP will create an even larger market comprising nearly half the world’s population and a third of its GDP, and bring significant economic and strategic benefits to its members and the broader Asia Pacific region. If we can sign the RCEP this year, it will, together with the CPTPP, send a clear signal to the world about our commitment to multilateral trade, and our resolve to keep the regional architecture open and inclusive.

Question 5: Cultural Ties

People’s Daily: According to Singapore Lianhe Zaobao’s report, China has overtaken Indonesia to become the source country for the largest number of tourists entering Singapore. What are your comments regarding this? Chinese make up the majority of Singapore’s population, hence a lot of PRC Chinese have a natural affinity towards Singapore. You have also received a Chinese education before. What are your views on the historical and cultural linkages between Singapore and China?

PM Lee: China has a population of almost 1,400 million people. The middle class has grown rapidly. Millions of Chinese are travelling overseas for business or leisure. They can be seen everywhere in the world.

Cultural and language similarities make Singapore a popular destination for Chinese tourists. We welcome them. Frequent exchanges between our peoples keep our ties strong and enable us to do more together.

At the same time, Chinese tourists visit Singapore precisely because we are not another Chinese city. They find Singapore a fascinating multiracial and multi-religious country with different cultures and ways of life. Different ethnic groups and religious faiths co-exist side by side, harmoniously. We hope that when Chinese tourists visit us, they can see and appreciate how Singapore is unique, and how our multi-racial national identity influences our place in the world and relations with other countries.

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