Transcript of speech by PM Lee Hsien Loong at the Boao Forum for Asia (BFA) Annual Conference on 30 March 2023

30 March 2023

Source: PMO


Your Excellency, Premier Li Qiang, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, 大家早上好.

Asia’s Promise

Asia is a vibrant region with enormous promise. It is home to more than half of the world’s population, and Asians are increasingly better educated, brimming with energy, ideas, and dynamism. China is one of the biggest economies in the world. Its consumer market is huge and expanding, its technology is advancing rapidly, and its workforce is increasingly skilled. India too is developing steadily, with a youthful demographic advantage. And Southeast Asia has a growing middle class, and is projected collectively to become the fourth largest economy in the world by the end of the decade.

An Uncertain World

However, realising Asia’s promise depends on the region rmaining stable, inclusive and open.

Like every other region, Asia is affected by the troubled global environment and strategic tensions. The COVID-19 pandemic severely disrupted our societies, our economies, and our supply chains. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has gravely violated the UN Charter and international law, and profoundly undermined the rules-based international order. Most worrying is the state of relations between the US and China. Big powers have a heavy responsibility to maintain stable and workable relations with one another, because any clash between them will have grievous consequences, for themselves and the world. And yet the US and China are at odds over many intractable issues – including trade and investments, supply chains, cybersecurity, emerging and critical technologies, as well as freedom of navigation. We hope that China and the United States will succeed in stabilising their relationship, and establish sufficient mutual trust and respect to cooperate in areas where their interests are aligned.

The world feels the impact of these tensions keenly. Progress on tackling urgent problems such as climate change, energy and food security, and pandemic preparedness has been severely impeded. Economic imperatives are being overshadowed by national security concerns. Countries are pursuing self-reliance and resilience, by “on-shoring” or “friend-shoring” their supply chains. The bifurcation in technological and economic systems is deepening. And this will impose a huge economic cost on countries, as well as further exacerbate rivalries and frictions.

What can we do in Asia?

Against this global backdrop, what can Asian countries do?

First, we should continue to promote economic cooperation and good relations between China and countries in the region. China has become the largest trading partner for almost every country in Asia. It has launched also, regional and global initiatives, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and the Global Development Initiative (GDI). Other Asian countries reciprocate China’s desire to deepen economic integration. Post-COVID, we encourage the revival of investment, trade, and tourism flows. And we look forward to participating in new growth opportunities in China’s dynamic economy.

Singapore’s own ties with China are doing well. We are updating and improving the China-Singapore FTA, and raising overall relations to a higher level. Our Government-to-Government cooperation projects have matched China’s priorities at different stages of its development. The latest project, the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative, improves connectivity between Western China and Southeast Asia and is part of the Belt and Road Initiative. Even during the pandemic, Singapore kept up our ties with China. Our merchandise trade expanded by 6 percent last year. Singapore is one of the largest foreign sources of investments in China. At the same time, more and more Chinese companies are investing in Singapore, setting up headquarters and operations.

The economic cooperation between China and its Asian neighbours will be more robust if it is underpinned by a sound broader relationship, which builds mutual trust and fosters regional stability. There are many bilateral and regional issues that need to be resolved, and they should be managed in the spirit of goodwill and cooperation, peacefully and in accordance with international law, giving full weight to the perspectives and interests of all countries big and small. From time to time, national interests will diverge, and bilateral issues will arise. This is unavoidable. And when this happens, it is important that we insulate our economic relations from these difficulties, and continue to do business with one another. We must strive to work together pragmatically for the benefit of our peoples, even when we may not see eye to eye on some other issues. This will enable all Asian countries to co-exist peacefully with one another, and enjoy the space and security to chart their own paths towards development and prosperity.

Secondly, besides strengthening their ties with China, countries in Asia also need to deepen cooperation with one another. We should build a dense mesh of cooperation and interdependence, rather than a hub and spokes model, because this will result in a stronger and more resilient region.

ASEAN is a key organisation that promotes cooperation in Southeast Asia. ASEAN Member States are working systematically to strengthen integration among ourselves. The ASEAN Digital Economy Framework Agreement will deepen our cooperation in a sector which will only become more crucial and pervasive. And the ASEAN Community Vision for 2025 provides a roadmap towards a rules-based, people-oriented, and people-centred ASEAN Community. ASEAN Centrality also helps to link up partners across Asia and beyond. Mechanisms like the East Asia Summit, ASEAN Plus Three, and ASEAN Regional Forum have brought major players together and offered neutral platforms for productive dialogue and engagement. ASEAN also initiated the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which is the world’s largest FTA, covering Southeast Asia, Northeast Asia, and Australasia.

Many other complementary regional groupings exist in Asia. These include the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), and the Digital Economy Partnership Agreement (DEPA). These groupings are not mutually exclusive. They have varying memberships, and often overlap with one another. Not every country needs to be in every group. But collectively, the different groupings build a resilient and interlocking network of cooperation among countries in Asia. At the same time, these regional groupings deepen ties between Asia and the rest of the world, and this give our external partners stakes in Asia’s peace and prosperity.

This brings me to my third point, that Asia should always remain an open region. As Asian countries develop cooperation among ourselves, we should also cultivate our relations with the US, Europe, and other parts of the world. For example, despite the tensions between the China and the United States, their bilateral trade in goods hit a record high of close to USD 700 billion last year. Other Asian countries too are keen to expand economic relations with other regions. Investments by European and American companies in Asia continue to grow. Asian countries are concluding FTAs with European countries and with the EU and even with partners in Latin America, e.g., Singapore has an FTA with the Pacific Alliance. Strong economic ties across regions will foster greater interest among more stakeholders to engage constructively in Asia. This will encourage healthy competition, spur innovation and partnerships, moderate tensions when they arise, and make for a more stable and balanced region.


Whether Asia can realise its promise will depend on how well countries in Asia maintain stable relations and cooperate practically and productively, both amongst themselves and with our external partners. As a very important economy in Asia, China has a big role to play in all of this. We welcome China’s commitment to continue opening up its economy, and to continue supporting multilateralism and regional cooperation, and we look forward to all parties contributing more actively to regional and global development and prosperity, to benefit Asia and the world.

Thank you very much.

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