Minister: Thank you for joining us in this hybrid press conference. I had a very open, extensive and in-depth discussion with State Councilor and Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi. I have known him for several years. Over the years, we have been able to have some very open and constructive conversations - sincere, no holds barred. This is my first visit to China since the COVID-19 outbreak. In a sense, it represents the renewal of the diplomatic tempo in a post-COVID era. We had an extensive discussion, and covered a wide range of topics. I will give you a brief summary.
First, we reviewed the events of last year and how in particular, both China and Singapore were able to extend mutual support to each other at critical moments of the pandemic. Not all of this was publicised but the fact that we were able to step up and help each other illustrates this point about “a friend in need is a friend indeed”. This reflects the already existing strong relationship based on trust, goodwill, and a long track record over the years. In a post-COVID recovery phase, we are looking at – as both Singapore and China re-open our economies – how we can slowly, gradually and carefully resume travel links. One of the things we discussed was mutual recognition of health certification. I want to emphasise that this goes beyond vaccination status, and into serology, PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction) nucleic acid tests, and on the rest of it. There will need to be verifiable, authorised sources of this information. We need to be able to exchange relevant subsets of this information in a way that would facilitate safe travel for all the people concerned. We spent a fair amount of time on this topic.
Then, we reviewed bilateral relations. First of all, both of us agreed that we had no problems to resolve but in fact, had a good track record to look back on. If we look back at last year, our investment flow into China, our trade figures were all stable. Singapore has been the largest investor in China since 2013. I expect that we will maintain this position for some time to come. The renewed strategy within China – what they call a “dual circulation” strategy – also may present some opportunities for us. For instance, for their domestic circulation – for their domestic economy – the fact that we have already invested in a significant way within China gives our companies with niche expertise the opportunities to participate in the growth of their domestic economy. On the other hand, as far as the external dimension is concerned, Singapore remains a very good portal for Chinese companies which want to access Southeast Asia and the markets beyond. In fact, we noted that one quarter of China’s investments in Belt and Road destinations flows through Singapore. This illustrates the importance of Singapore as a hub, as a node for China and Chinese companies trying to expand beyond its own shores. This represents an area of great opportunity for mutual benefit. We also reviewed the projects and agreements that were signed at the 16th JCBC (Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation) meeting that was co-chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat and Vice Premier Han Zheng in December 2020. I am glad to report that all those are progressing well. All in all, good progress has been made on the economic side.
Then, we of course looked at regional issues. ASEAN is celebrating our 30th anniversary of ASEAN-China Dialogue Relations this year. We are planning some commemorative events. I would also add that last year, we marked the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Singapore and China. Unfortunately, we could not proceed with a State Visit as planned. But we are looking for another opportunity, hopefully later this year, at an opportune time, for President Halimah Yacob to make a State Visit to China.
On other regional issues, obviously, we had to discuss the very troubling circumstances in Myanmar. First, I will speak from Singapore’s perspective. We are alarmed and appalled at the escalating violence, particularly over the weekend, on what was supposed to be Armed Forces’ Day. In fact, it turned out to be a day with perhaps the highest number of fatalities. This is tragic, this is doubly tragic. Again, we aired our voice to the military authorities to act with restraint, de-escalate the violence, and commence honest, constructive dialogue between the two sides. When I discussed with State Councilor Wang Yi, China shares our hope for de-escalation of tension, cessation of violence, and political dialogue to occur. Both of us agreed that we should still respect the principle of non-interference in domestic matters. Ultimately, the fate and future of Myanmar lie in the hands of its people. We can try to help. ASEAN, and the UN, will certainly try to help in a constructive, non-interfering way, but in a way that allows dialogue to occur. We will have to do so carefully, patiently and in a way that encourages engagement and conversation, rather than confrontation. I will stop here and take questions.
Ang Poh Ling (Channel 8): Minister, you briefly mentioned that both of you spent a fair bit of time talking about opening up borders. Are we looking at more fast lane arrangements to other Chinese provinces? Singaporeans are also interested to know about leisure travel. Is there a timeline that we are looking at?
Minister: We have Reciprocal Green Lanes. We also have a unilateral opening for people from Mainland China because its case control is good. We are confident that when they come to Singapore and we test them and if they clear (the on-arrival test), they can proceed with their activities. China is obviously looking at our figures and the fact that we are making good progress, both in terms of case control and vaccination. I am not yet ready to give you a timetable of dates and the numbers, except to tell you that it is moving in a positive direction. I know that there are also Singaporeans who are studying in China who also want to get back (to resume their studies). I can assure them that I have put in that request for them as well.
Dawn Tan (The Straits Times): Minister, analysts have pointed to China's charm offensive of Southeast Asia as a move against intensifying US strategic competition. We have seen for instance, a series of very high-level visits last year, and January this year by President Xi Jinping, by top diplomats Chinese Communist Party Politburo member Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, and Defence Minister Wei Fenghe. Given Singapore's close partnership with the US, what is your view on this? How do you see US-China rivalry in the region shaping up in the near future?
Minister: The first point I would make is that, in fact, this is a reversion to the normal diplomatic tempo. If I look back at my own timetable, I used to make two or three trips a year to China. Therefore, my not coming here for a year, for the past year, was already unusual. I would first say what you are witnessing is a reversion to the normal diplomatic tempo. The next point I would make is that, particularly at a time when you have a pandemic, you have challenges to globalisation, you have a push back against free trade, and as you have said, increasing superpower rivalry – this actually calls for more engagement, not less. I view the fact that China has been willing to engage – and engage extensively – as a positive step. I am sure that the new US administration will do likewise. You know that in the case of Singapore, we will engage with all our partners, all over the world. That would also include the European Union, India, and Africa. We really need to do more, not less. Even in this age when we can communicate through Zoom and video conferences, nothing beats eye contact. We do not shake hands yet but there is still some form of the warmth of human contact.
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