HO CHI MINH CITY: Singapore and Vietnam are exploring the idea of forming a strategic partnership, a move that would enable them to go beyond traditional economic and business ties to cooperate in security, defence and other issues.
They are looking at how they can work together more in areas such as battling terrorism and cross-border crimes, while also expanding business opportunities for companies in both countries.
For example, they could help firms team up to form 'international partnerships' and make joint investments in a third country, such as in neighbouring Laos, Cambodia or Myanmar.
Another potential area of cooperation is cruise tourism to various parts of South-east Asia, which both countries can work together to promote.
President Tony Tan Keng Yam revealed these plans yesterday as he ended a five-day state visit to Vietnam. It was his first state visit since being elected President last year.
In an interview wrapping up the trip, he told Singapore reporters that he had 'extensive discussions' with top Vietnam leaders on how such a partnership would work, and how it would enhance the strong ties between the two countries.
'We've got a strong base. Now the question is, where do we go from here?' he said. 'We can deepen our ties... build on our base, bring our cooperation beyond economics and business into other areas like security, like defence, like international partnerships.'
Asked if the partnership would be sealed in a formal agreement, Dr Tan said it was 'premature' to give details.
He said the Singapore and Vietnamese foreign ministries, which had done a first round of discussions on the issue earlier this year, are still working on the idea.
'They have to crystallise it and see whether some formal document, or formal arrangement or structure, will be the best way of moving this forward,' he added.
While the talks will for now be led - at least in Singapore - by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, other ministries and agencies will be roped in later. The trade and industry, defence and home affairs ministries are likely to be brought on board, Dr Tan said, adding that Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean will be visiting Vietnam soon to discuss cooperation in security and defence.
The President said the idea for such a partnership had come from his Vietnamese counterpart Truong Tan Sang, when the latter visited Singapore last September.
Vietnam has strategic partnerships with several countries, including the Netherlands, which pave the way for cooperation in areas ranging from climate change adaptation to water management.
If Singapore seals such a partnership with Vietnam, it could be one of the first countries in Asean to do so.
Stressing his support for the partnership, Dr Tan noted that it would build on strong bilateral relations that he said were anchored by Singapore investments. The Republic is the fourth-largest foreign investor in Vietnam - after Japan, South Korea and Taiwan - with cumulative investments of US$24 billion (S$30 billion) in more than 1,000 projects.
Key investments include four Vietnam Singapore Industrial Parks (VSIPs) that have attracted 465 companies employing about 110,000 workers. A fifth VSIP was given the green light on Monday, and Vietnamese officials had also suggested a sixth during their meetings with Dr Tan.
The Singapore President had arrived in Hanoi on Monday with National Development Minister Khaw Boon Wan, their wives and about 30 officials. Over the five days, he made numerous calls on Vietnamese national and provincial leaders, toured some of the VSIPs and Singapore developments in the country, and met Singaporeans living there.
'We've had a very good visit here,' Dr Tan said, and noted how things had changed since he last visited Vietnam 16 years ago, when he was deputy prime minister and defence minister.
'I'm glad to come back here again to see enormous changes in Vietnam... I think that all of these have been very impressive,' he said.
Which is why, he added later, he believed that Vietnamese companies were now in the position to invest outside the country. Singapore, he said, has expertise in doing this, and could thus encourage such international partnerships.
'I think this could be a very fruitful area and a new dimension to cooperation in the economic and business field between Vietnam and Singapore,' he said.