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PM Lee attends second “Belt and Road” Forum after conspicuous absence at inaugural event

China has finally invited PM Lee to the second "Belt and Road" Forum as bilateral tensions ease.

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Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is in attendance at the second “Belt and Road” Forum that is taking place between 25 and 27 Apr in Beijing, China. His presence at the high-level event comes after a conspicuous absence at the inaugural “Belt and Road” Forum that took place in May 2017.

China’s “Belt and Road” Forum is an initiative to restore the ancient Silk Road trading routes and to build infrastructure around the routes. The Chinese Government invited 29 heads of state and the representatives of 28 other countries to the first Forum in 2017.

PM Lee, however, was not among the dignitaries who were invited to the high-level meeting. National Development Minister later confirmed that the invitations were decided by China.

PM Lee’s absence at the 2017 Forum was conspicuous, especially given the fact that the leaders of smaller nations like Fiji and Chile were present at the event. Political analysts speculated at the time that the tensions between Singapore and China could be why PM Lee was not invited to the forum.

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In 2016, the Chinese Communist Party-controlled Global Times accused PM Lee of taking America’s side after he praised ex-US President Barack Obama for his decision to “re-balance” the Asia Pacific region.

Asserting that China’s “tolerance also should have a limit” and that “Singapore should not push it,” Global Times cautioned: “Singapore can go and please the Americans, but it needs to do their utmost to avoid harming China’s interests. It needs to be clear and open about its latter attitude.”

Bilateral tensions between Singapore and China grew when Hong Kong customs detained nine Singapore infantry carrier “Terrex” vehicles en route from exercises in Taiwan to Singapore. The vehicles were finally returned after a tense two months.

China then seemed to snub PM Lee by not inviting him to the “Belt and Road” forum, that was held months after the Terrex incident.

Tensions cooled in September 2017 when Singapore and China partnered on a deal involving the “Belt and Road” initiative. That month, PM Lee and a delegation of top Singapore ministers made an official visit to China.

Less than two years later, China has finally invited PM Lee to the second “Belt and Road” Forum. This year, all 10 ASEAN leaders, including PM Lee, and 27 world leaders have gathered for the high-profile summit.

Speaking at the Forum today, PM Lee positioned the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as one that can reverse the state of the global multilateral system that has been weakened due to a backlash against globalisation. He added that the BRI plays “an important role to strengthen regional and multilateral cooperation.”

Asserting that the the multilateral system can help solve complex transnational challenges like terrorism, climate change and the spread of infectious diseases, PM Lee said:

“These are only issues that can be solved by countries cooperating within a multilateral framework, because both countries and their problems have become so interconnected and interdependent.
“All countries, big and small, rely on a stable global order on which we can cooperate productively, resolve disputes peacefully and work together on new areas.”

PM Lee added that Singapore has been an “early and strong supporter” of the BRI because “Better infrastructure will enhance trade and economic cooperation not just between other countries and China, but also with one another.”

Positioning Singapore as a neutral third-party venue that can help BRI nations and companies to efficiently resolve commercial disputers, PM Lee said that Singapore could also provide co-financing and risk management services for BRI projects.

Earlier, Chinese national leader Xi Jinping said that the ambitious BRI aims to advance win-win cooperation among nations as it builds a new platform for international trade while advancing local development opportunities.

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