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Why do China-Singapore relations matter?

Luo Yongkun
Updated: Nov 13,2018 3:20 PM     CGTN

Premier Li Keqiang is visiting Singapore from November 12 to 16 where the two sides are expected to further enhance bilateral relations. He will also attend the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit and the East Asia Summit currently underway in Singapore.

Geographically speaking, Singapore is a small nation in the ASEAN, but it plays a special role in the organization especially considering its close relations with China.

Singapore is China’s top FDI source and the country’s fourth trading partner in ASEAN after Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand. The two nations are also cooperating under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Robust China-Singapore economic links

In the past three years, the two nations have witnessed great progress in improving their economic ties. Altogether 137 cooperative projects worth $21.9 billion have been signed through China-Singapore inter-governmental programs.

The four landmark programs, namely the Suzhou Industrial Park, the Tianjin Ecological Park, the Chongqing demonstration initiative on strategic connectivity and the Guangzhou Knowledge City, are leading the bilateral and regional economic cooperation. Recently, the two nations concluded negotiations on upgrading the China-Singapore Free Trade Agreement, bringing bilateral economic relations to a higher level and Premier Li is expected to sign the new pact during his visit.

Many factors have led to the great progress made by China and Singapore, but two of them stand out.

First of all, both countries uphold the flag of opening up and support global trade and multilateral cooperation.

For China, this year marks the 40th anniversary of China’s reform and opening-up. In the past decades, China has made great efforts to enhance economic links with neighboring countries, and promote regional and global multilateral economic cooperation. For example, it supports the ASEAN-based FTA arrangement, and pushes for the BRI. In recent weeks, China held its first international import expo, attracting world attention and opening a new platform for trade and economic cooperation between China and the outside world.

As a developed economy in ASEAN, Singapore plays a constructive role in pushing forward the ASEAN plus FTAs — Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

Singapore believes the RCEP is an important signal to the world that ASEAN members and its partners place high value on free trade, regional integration and international cooperation. This year, Singapore, ASEAN chairman, has made great efforts to facilitate the RCEP-related meetings and tried to narrow the gaps in the concerns of the negotiating states, particularly in the areas of market access, in order to conclude negotiations soon. Both China and Singapore are now benefiting from the regional economic mechanisms.

Second, the two nations have always been exploring new ways to improve their economic links, making great contributions to regional prosperity and development. For instance, China and Singapore held the Investment Forum on the BRI in October and decided to explore joint cooperation in third nations. It is worth noting that the two nations’ collaboration in third countries will not only strengthen bilateral economic ties, but also bring benefits to the region.

China-Singapore relations overshadowed by US?

Some argue that even though Sino-Singapore economic relations are very strong, Singapore seems to prioritize ties with the US and always takes a balanced policy towards China and the US.

In my opinion, I would say, for many countries in the world, relations with the US are the priority. It is a natural and pragmatic consideration. Singapore is no exception, either, as the country forged close military, political and economic ties with the US since it gained independence in 1966.

However, despite that, how much China-Singapore relations weigh in Singaporean policymakers’ consideration cannot be underestimated. China is a major player both internationally and in the East Asian region. Singapore’s cooperation with its big neighbor and the second largest economy in the world not only brings stability and enormous economic benefits to the country, but is of great significance to regional prosperity as well. Thus, Singapore’s relations with the US will not hinder its cooperation with China.

The new cooperative programs like smart cities, e-commerce, tourism, connectivity and Internet of Things will bring China and Singapore’s economic relations closer, and make China-ASEAN economic cooperation more innovative and robust, especially under the BRI framework.

At present, China, Singapore, and the ASEAN are actively pushing for regional integration and trying to make the East Asia free trade area a reality. Led by China-Singapore cooperation, the cooperation and strategic trust between China and the ASEAN will be greatly enhanced and the prospect of a more integrated East Asia will be more likely.

(Luo Yongkun is an associate research fellow at China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations. The article reflects the author’s opinion.)