Opportunities abound for the next 30 years

Interview with Chan Chun Sing, Minister for Trade and Industry

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By Han Yong Hong

“We should be encouraged by our achievements in the past 30 years. We have confidence that bilateral ties between Singapore and China will deepen, with more areas and opportunities to further bilateral cooperation in the next 30 years.”

Mr Chan Chun Sing, Minister for Trade and Industry, is optimistic of the outlook of the bilateral relationship between Singapore and China. As the Minister overseeing Singapore’s international trade, and who used to lead the Singapore-China (Chongqing) Connectivity Initiative, Mr Chan has been personally involved in advancing cooperation between Singapore and China.

Mr Chan said, “In the past, our relationship was based on ‘trade with Singapore’. It then evolved into ‘trade through Singapore’ with other countries. Today, it is ‘trade on Singapore’ – whereby countries trade on platforms created by Singapore. This is a different business model, and its potential is growing.”

Mr Chan was the first Singapore Minister to head the third Government-to-Government project, the China-Singapore (Chongqing) Demonstration Initiative on Strategic Connectivity (CCI). He was directly involved from the outset, when the theme of “modern connectivity and modern services” was conceptualised, to establish Singapore and Chongqing as the twin hubs connecting Western China with Central and Southeast Asia.

The positioning of this bilateral project came about during Mr Chan’s visit to Xi’an, Chengdu, and Chongqing. The Chinese government had suggested to base the third Government-to-Government project in Western China, to boost the region’s economic development. While out exploring Chongqing on his own, Mr Chan realised that the key to furthering Western China’s economic development lays in addressing the costs of connectivity.

Mr Chan subsequently proposed improving connectivity in trade and logistics in Western China. The idea gradually gained support from the Chinese authorities, and officials from both countries went on to fine-tune the concept. Both sides eventually agreed on common working terms such as logistical connectivity, aviation and digital finance; and worked together continuously to refine and implement the CCI’s overall concept.

Since its launch in 2015, participation in the CCI has grown amongst the provinces in Western China. According to Mr Chan, Singapore’s partnership with China has now expanded beyond being point-to-point, person-to-person, and city-to-city – it now also includes building joint platforms on which cooperation takes place.

Throughout this whole process, Mr Chan has had numerous opportunities to work directly with Chinese officials and encapsulate within the CCI a unique quality of the relations between the two countries: Singapore’s awareness and ability to keep pace with China’s pace of development and corresponding developmental needs.

He stressed, “We are not going into China with any preconceived notions, saying, ‘This is what I want to do, this is what you need.’ What we do is understand what China really needs. This is the basis of our partnership. With this attitude, there will be many projects we can work on with China.”

Since the establishment of bilateral ties, this principle has been upheld, and is embodied in all the three Government-to-Government projects to date.

In the 1990s when China was focusing on industrialisation and looking to further open up and attract foreign investment, the first bilateral project, the China-Singapore Suzhou Industrial Park, was materialised. In the 2000s when China was dealing with severe environmental protection issues, the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-City was launched. As China entered into a phase of regional development and sought to balance development between West and East China in recent years, Singapore proposed a solution to lower the cost of logistics and financing in the western region– and the CCI was thus conceived.

Such close cooperation is rarely seen in other bilateral relationships.

Mr Chan goes on to explain that Singapore does not see China’s development as static but seeks to gain a deeper understanding of and cooperate with China on its changing phases of development across different regions of the country. He said, “I think this will remain unchanged in the next 30 years”

The high level of mutual trust and similar pragmatic work cultures are also noteworthy qualities in bilateral ties between Singapore and China. Mr Chan added, “In the next 30 years, China will play an even more important role on the international stage, and interact and connect more closely with other countries; Singapore can work with China and create synergies on the international stage as well as through cooperation with third party countries.”

As to specific areas of cooperation, Mr Chan pointed out that the next three decades will see China entering a new phase in both social and economic developments, facing new challenges such as an ageing population, greater demand for social welfare, and balancing social diversity. He pointed out that Singapore and China both faced similar challenges and can learn from each other.

Against the backdrop of the current global economic environment, both countries are seeking new business opportunities around the world. They also share common interests such as the development of emerging industries, healthcare technology, high precision technology and digital technology, which provides the ground for more potential areas of partnership.

Upholding the multilateral trading system together

Since his appointment as the Minister for Trade and Industry in 2018, Mr Chan has been directly responsible for Singapore’s free trade agreements. During this time, negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) Agreement among China, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Australia, India and the ten-member ASEAN, which began in 2012, also started picking up pace.

After 8 years of negotiation, the agreement was officially signed on 15 November 2020 at the sidelines of the 37th ASEAN Summit and Related Meetings. The RCEP is the world's largest Free Trade Agreement to date and it is also a demonstration of partner countries' commitment to manage the adverse economic impact arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Working together on the ASEAN platform or other international platforms is an important new direction in bilateral ties.

As Mr Chan pointed out, in the face of rising trade protectionism, both Singapore and China hope to defend global connectivity and maintain a peaceful global environment. “That is why whether it is working with a third country or the rest of the world, there are many opportunities for us as partners to defend the multilateral trading system.”

In the next 30 years of Singapore-China relations, what role can organisations like Business China play?

Mr Chan said, “The role of Business China has always been to build closer links between the entrepreneurs of Singapore and China. Looking ahead, I hope to see Business China nurturing a new generation of successors, connecting young Singaporeans with professionals, experts, scholars and the academia in China, and enhancing mutual understanding, so that we can work together better to explore the opportunities ahead.”