A look back on exchanges between the leaders of Singapore and China

Founding leaders: Breaking the ice and building trust

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In late 1974, Singapore’s Minister for Foreign Affairs S. Rajaratnam was in New York for the United Nations General Assembly when he met China’s Foreign Minister Qiao Guanhua. As they chatted, Foreign Minister Qiao suddenly asked Mr Rajaratnam, why not send a delegation to China? As the Culture Revolution was ongoing in China, Mr Rajaratnam replied that he would think about it.

This was not mere diplomatic politeness. In March the following year, Mr Rajaratnam personally led a delegation of five to Beijing and met with Premier Zhou Enlai. Mr Rajaratnam made clear Singapore’s stance of wanting to build friendly relations with China. Mr Rajaratnam shared that due to geopolitical circumstances and the prevailing ideology in the region, it would not be immediately possible for the two countries to establish diplomatic ties in order to avoid any misunderstanding. Foreign Minister Qiao Guanhua expressed his understanding, and previously frosty relations between the two countries began to thaw.

A year later, in May 1976, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew visited China for the first time. In addition to his wife and daughter, he was accompanied by senior cabinet ministers including Foreign Minister S. Rajaratnam, Finance Minister Hon Sui Sen, Senior Minister of State Ahmad Mattar, and S.R Nathan – who would later become President of Singapore.

PM Lee also met with Mao Zedong, who despite his poor health and inability to walk at the time, made the effort to greet the delegation in person as a gesture of amicability and respect. Mr Lee’s maiden visit to China included stops in Beijing, Dazhai in Shanxi, Xi’an, Shanghai, Wuxi, Guilin, and Guangzhou, and kicked off a close relationship of frequent exchange of visits between the leaders of both countries over the next three decades. Mr Lee himself visited China a total of 33 times over 35 years, which made up 10% of the total number of foreign trips he took.

In November 1978, China emerged from the Mao era and entered the era of Deng. Then Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping led a delegation to Singapore for a three-day visit, where the top leadership of both countries met for the first time. Singapore’s rapid development after gaining independence in 1965, its social order and model for economic growth left a deep impression on Deng and provided a reference for the Reform and Opening Up of China he spearheaded. The visit also became the foundation of the vibrant partnership in economic development between the two countries.

In the 1980s, Singapore and China both set up trade representative offices in each other’s countries and established direct flight links. In 1985, former Deputy Prime Minister Goh Keng Swee was appointed by the Chinese government as the Economic Advisor to the State Council of the People’s Republic of China on coastal development, and later Advisor on tourism. The appointments played a crucial part in the formal establishment of Diplomatic Relations in 1990.

In 1992, Deng Xiaoping embarked on his historic Southern Tour. While in Shenzhen, he mentioned once again that “Singapore’s social order is rather good”, reiterating the need to learn from Singapore’s model of governance. Not long after this, bilateral relations between the two countries arrived at another important milestone. After three visits to China, Lee Kuan Yew handpicked the location for the first government-to-government project, and signed an agreement to jointly develop the Suzhou Industrial Park with China’s Vice-Premier Li Lanqing in Beijing on February 1994.

Second Generation Leadership: Reinforcing and Building Upon the Foundation

After Goh Chok Tong became Singapore’s second Prime Minister in November 1990, he realised that the responsibility of maintaining friendly bilateral relations laid on his shoulders, and he continually sought new areas of cooperation in order to deepen links between the two countries. In Mr Goh’s 14 years at the helm, the biggest highlights of bilateral relations was the establishment of the Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation in 2003, and the China-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (CSFTA), which was signed in 2008 – both of which PM Goh spearheaded.

The Free Trade Agreement, which had been driven by the Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation, was also the first comprehensive free trade agreement China had signed with an Asian country. The second government-level joint venture, Tianjin Eco-City, was also launched under the watch of Mr Goh, by then Senior Minister. For Mr Goh, it was the reaction of Premier Wen Jiabao to his proposal of the Tianjin Eco-City project that left the deepest impression during his visit to China in April 2007.

“He immediately agreed, which surprised me… The next morning, Vice-Premier Wu Yi told me that Premier Wen has already put her in charge of the plan.”

Third Generation Leaders: Deepening Links and Reaching New Heights

In October 2005, current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made his maiden state visit to China, meeting with President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao, National People’s Congress Chairman Wu Bangguo, and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference Chairman Jia Qinglin – four of the highest ranked members of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee, an honour not commonly accorded to visiting foreign leaders.

Five years later at the invitation of PM Lee Hsien Loong, Xi Jinping arrived in Singapore for his first official visit as the Vice President of China. During the three-day visit, Mr Xi attended the ground-breaking ceremony of the China Cultural Centre with then Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, demonstrating the importance of bilateral cultural exchanges in the eyes of both countries’ leaders.

As economic cooperation continued to grow, the Monetary Authority of Singapore office in Beijing officially opened in 2013. The same year, official data showed that Singapore had become the biggest source of foreign direct investment in China, with total investment valued at US$66.5 billion.

In June 2015, Singapore President Tony Tan embarked on a six-day state visit at the invitation of China’s President Xi Jinping. At a meeting, the Presidents of both countries agreed to launch a substantive upgrade of the bilateral Free Trade Agreement which came into force in 2009. President Xi expressed the same concern and support for the third government-to-government project in China’s western region, and his hope that it would become a key demonstration project for China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Western Development programme, and Yangtze River Economic Belt programme.

The project saw significant progress five months later, when President Xi Jinping made his first visit to Singapore as China’s President, and along with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, witnessed the signing of the China-Singapore (Chongqing) Demonstration Project on Strategic Connectivity Framework Agreement. During the visit, President Xi proposed and affirmed bilateral relations as an “all-round cooperative partnership progressing with the times,” underpinning the vigour of the partnership between the governments of both countries.

Fourth Generation Leaders: Reaching New Heights

In October 2019, Singapore Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Heng Swee Keat led a delegation to China and it comprised core members of Singapore’s fourth generation leadership including six full ministers. Mr Heng also hosted the Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation meeting for the first time as Deputy Prime Minister.

Henceforth, a new chapter in the history of bilateral relations is being written by Singapore’s 4G leaders.