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‘Warm, long-standing’ ties reaffirmed as PM kicks off China visit

BEIJING — Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his Chinese counterpart Li Keqiang reaffirmed the warm and long-standing friendship between their two countries during a meeting Tuesday (Sept 19).

PM Lee Hsien Loong, who is on a 3-day official visit to China, was given an official welcome by his Chinese counterpart Li Keqiang at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Tuesday. Photo: Jason Quah/TODAY

PM Lee Hsien Loong, who is on a 3-day official visit to China, was given an official welcome by his Chinese counterpart Li Keqiang at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Tuesday. Photo: Jason Quah/TODAY

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BEIJING — Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his Chinese counterpart Li Keqiang reaffirmed the warm and long-standing friendship between their two countries during a meeting Tuesday (Sept 19).

During their talks, both leaders reviewed the extensive cooperation between the two countries, and welcomed Singapore’s support of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) said in a statement after the 45-minute meeting, which took place just weeks before the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) 19th Party Congress.

The timing of Mr Lee’s official visit — during which he will also meet President Xi Jinping — holds “important political significance”, a senior Chinese diplomat told the media after Tuesday’s meeting.

The once-in-five-years congress is closely watched for leadership reshuffles and renewals at the top of the CCP, and ensuing policy changes.

The PMO statement added: “(Both leaders) welcomed the good progress made in the negotiations for the upgrade of the China-Singapore Free Trade Agreement, and looked forward to its expeditious conclusion.

“PM Lee and Premier Li also discussed the potential for deepening bilateral ties through new areas of cooperation, such as in financial and judicial and legal cooperation.”

After a welcome ceremony outside the Great Hall of the People Tuesday, the first day of the Singapore leader’s official three-day visit to China, Mr Lee thanked his host for the warm welcome and said he was very happy to be back in Beijing.

“I’m very grateful for your attention to our bilateral relationship, and also for the opportunity for us to discuss how we can work together in the regional context and with Asean,” Mr Lee said.

“Singapore is the coordinator for Asean and China relations currently. Next year, we will be the Asean chairman, and we hope that in these capacities, we can make a contribution towards bringing Asean and China closer together,” he added.

Echoing Mr Lee’s remarks, the Chinese Premier said he hoped Singapore’s chairmanship of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) will “inject new vitality” into Sino-Singapore and China-Asean relations.

Senior diplomat Bai Tian told the media later that China holds Sino-Singapore relations “in high regard”, as evidenced by the number of high-level ministerial meetings held between both countries this year.

“We are confident of the deepening ties between China and Singapore, and believe that both countries will work to sustain these relations in the future,” said Mr Bai, vice-director of the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Asia department.

A commentary in English published by the official Xinhua news agency also lauded ties between China and Singapore, noting that both countries have “a long tradition of close cooperation ... and will find opportunities to upgrade their relationship, which will benefit the region and beyond”.

The commentary cited the example of how both countries are staunch supporters of free trade in the face of rising protectionist sentiments around the world. “Looking ahead, for China and Singapore, there is much more to come,” the Xinhua commentary added.

Mr Lee last visited China in September last year, when he travelled to south-western Chongqing to follow up on the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative (CCI), and to attend the G20 Leaders’ Meeting in Hangzhou.

In Tuesday’s meeting, Mr Lee and the Chinese Premier noted that the CCI, the third government-to-government project following the Suzhou Industrial Park and the Tianjin Eco-city, had the potential to support the BRI, and to play a “demonstrative role” in the development of western China, the PMO statement said.

The BRI is an ambitious Chinese undertaking to expand links between Asia, Africa, Europe and beyond, underpinned by billions of dollars in infrastructure investment.

Singapore is looking to collaborate with China on the mega project in areas such as infrastructure connectivity, financing, and third-party collaboration that could include the training of officials in countries along the “Belt and Road”.

Both leaders also discussed the Southern Transport Corridor, a new trade route between western China and South-east Asia.

On the international front, they expressed their “deep concern” over the heightening tensions on the Korean Peninsula as a result of Pyongyang’s nuclear programme.

Mr Lee is accompanied on his trip by his wife Ho Ching, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, Foreign Minister  Vivian Balakrishnan, Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Chan Chun Sing, Parliamentary Secretary (Home Affairs and Health) Amrin Amin, as well as officials from various ministries and agencies.

On Wednesday morning, Mr Lee will meet Mr Wang Qishan, China’s top graft-buster and a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, before visiting SenseTime, a Chinese start-up focused on artificial intelligence and deep learning technology.

In the afternoon, he will hold separate talks with President Xi and Mr Zhang Dejiang, chairman of the National People’s Congress, the Chinese legislature.

On Thursday, Mr Lee will meet and have lunch in Xiamen with the Fujian party secretary You Quan. When in Xiamen, Mr Lee will visit the Fujian (Xiamen)-Singapore friendship polyclinic, the first polyclinic jointly established by Singapore and China, as well as the OCBC Building and ST Aerospace Technologies (Xiamen).

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