Chinese ambassador to Singapore Hong Xiaoyong: China-Singapore ties tested and strengthened through the pandemic

From working to keep supply chains open to establishing “fast lanes” for essential travel, China and Singapore have been working together to face the tough challenges of the pandemic. Beyond pomp and pageantry, these actions are a sign of the strong ties that the two countries have forged over the last 30 years and more. In a recent interview with Lianhe Zaobao, Chinese ambassador to Singapore Hong Xiaoyong said Singapore and China have been working together this year, showing the strength of bilateral relations. And when the coronavirus is over, Singapore and China will be able to cooperate in more areas. With ASEAN becoming China’s top trading partner for the first time ever in the first half of the year, there is even greater scope for China-ASEAN cooperation.
Lianhe Zaobao recently interviewed Chinese ambassador to Singapore Hong Xiaoyong. (SPH)
Lianhe Zaobao recently interviewed Chinese ambassador to Singapore Hong Xiaoyong. (SPH)

On the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Singapore and China, the sudden onslaught of Covid-19 has posed challenges for bilateral cooperation. However, Singapore-China relations have not only withstood this test but improved. Commenting on this in an interview with Zaobao, Chinese ambassador to Singapore Hong Xiaoyong described Singapore-China relations during the pandemic in the context of the keywords “test” and “improved”.

Hong said from the government to the people, Singapore and China have been working together, showing the strength of bilateral relations. And when the coronavirus is over, Singapore and China will be able to cooperate in more areas.

Coincidentally, on the day of the interview, the first batch of “fast lane” visas was issued for travel between the two countries, with Singapore being the first ASEAN country to have such an arrangement with China. Hong said this was due to high mutual regard on both sides, reflecting close ties, good relations, and mutual trust.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan and Chinese Ambassador to Singapore Mr Hong Xiaoyong attending a donation handover ceremony. (SPH)
Singapore Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan and Chinese Ambassador to Singapore Hong Xiaoyong attending a donation handover ceremony, 8 February 2020. (SPH)

The fast lane agreement allows business and official travellers to proceed with their itinerary after being tested for the coronavirus before departure and on arrival, without a 14-day quarantine. This arrangement was first implemented in Shanghai, Tianjin, Chongqing, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Guangdong.

Hong said the fast lane measure is to facilitate the movement of people between Singapore and China. So far, it has been a good start, and the next step is to resolve implementation issues and gradually expand and streamline the process. As this was a special arrangement made due to the coronavirus, Hong hoped that it would “quickly fulfil its mission”, adding that “the ideal situation is for people to go back to travelling normally as soon as possible”.

Enormous potential of New International Land-Sea Trade Corridor

Covid-19 has hampered and challenged the movement of people and goods between Singapore and China. With limitations on air freight, the New International Land-Sea Trade Corridor under the China-Singapore (Chongqing) Demonstration Initiative on Strategic Connectivity (CCI-ILSTC) has taken on the load of safeguarding the flow of food and medical supplies between Singapore and China.

In late March this year, 25 tonnes of fresh oranges from Zhongxian in Chongqing arrived in Singapore via rail and sea, thanks to this land-sea corridor. In the second half of April, businesses in Chongqing gave Singapore another 13 tonnes of oranges and other food supplies through the land-sea corridor. Hong said the oranges reflect the significance and efficiency of the corridor, shortening a 20-day journey to just seven days. “When it comes to food, such high efficiency is necessary.”

While some projects have been unavoidably affected by the pandemic, the willingness of both countries to work together for mutual benefit has not declined, nor has the pace slowed, but has continued in other forms.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the 2nd Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing, China, held between 25 and 27 April 2019. (MCI)
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the 2nd Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing, China, held between 25 and 27 April 2019. (MCI)

As of the end of April this year, 1,811 international trains have run on the land-sea corridor, while 91,000 containers have been shipped by sea, covering 226 ports in 92 countries and regions. Hong feels that the corridor has great development potential and is a solid basis for Singapore and China to push for cooperation on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The example of the corridor will attract more Chinese provinces and cities, and countries in the region, to join this supply chain.

Quantitative and qualitative jump in cooperative projects

Hong said from the early Suzhou Industrial Park and Tianjin Eco-city, to today’s Chongqing project and the Shenzhen Smart City Initiative, Singapore and China have seen a quantitative and qualitative jump in cooperative projects. While some projects have been unavoidably affected by the pandemic, the willingness of both countries to work together for mutual benefit has not declined, nor has the pace slowed, but has continued in other forms.

He said, “During the pandemic, from the government to the people, China and Singapore have been supporting and helping each other, showing the forward-looking, strategic, and exemplary nature of bilateral relations. This has given substance to the comprehensive cooperative partnership between China and Singapore.”

In this photo taken on 12 April 2019, former Singapore Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean (left) and China's Jiangsu Party Secretary Lou Qinjian jointly launched the China-Singapore Cooperation Gallery on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP) bilateral project. Behind them is a silk embroidery that replicates a 2014 painting of Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Mr Deng Xiaoping with the backdrop of the SIP’s evening skyline. (SPH)
In this photo taken on 12 April 2019, former Singapore Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean (left) and China's Jiangsu Party Secretary Lou Qinjian jointly launched the China-Singapore Cooperation Gallery on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP) bilateral project. Behind them is a silk embroidery that replicates a 2014 painting by Wang Nen of Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Mr Deng Xiaoping with the backdrop of the SIP’s evening skyline. (SPH)

... Hong feels that given how both countries believe in openness, growth, cooperation, and mutual benefit, and hold firmly to cooperation based on mutual respect and equal benefit, Singapore-China ties will see stable long-term growth

Last week, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke to Chinese President Xi Jinping, where they exchanged views on how to strengthen cross-border and supply chain connectivity and financial, trade, and investment cooperation, in order to spark economic recovery. Both sides agreed to handle the pandemic’s public health and socioeconomic impact through bilateral and international cooperation.

Hong is optimistic about five areas of bilateral cooperation, namely maintaining industrial and supply chain stability, continuing to build BRI projects, making good use of existing cooperative mechanisms such as the Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation (JCBC), implementing cooperative plans such as the Singapore-Shanghai Comprehensive Cooperation Council and the Singapore-China Youth Interns Exchange Scheme, and seizing development opportunities afforded by the pandemic, such as strengthening cooperation in public health, cross-border e-commerce, and artificial intelligence.

Looking back at 30 years of diplomacy between Singapore and China, Hong feels that given how both countries believe in openness, growth, cooperation, and mutual benefit, and hold firmly to cooperation based on mutual respect and equal benefit, Singapore-China ties will see stable long-term growth. “China-Singapore cooperation has grown into mutually beneficial cooperation between a large country and a small country,” he said.

Communication is key

Another characteristic of China-Singapore relations is strategic planning through high-level exchanges. Hong pointed out that Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping had visited Singapore in 1978 and had good discussions with founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, when bilateral relations between both countries had not been established yet. This meeting marked the start of friendly ties between both sides. “Since then, generations of leaders from both countries have inherited a good tradition and maintained intimate relations with each other. Strategic communication between China and Singapore is going smoothly as a result,” he said.

Last year, Singapore President Halimah Yacob, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat visited China on separate occasions and spoke to Chinese President Xi Jinping, among other Chinese leaders. President Halimah may also make a state visit to China this year. Hong said that the two countries would be celebrating 30 years of diplomatic relations in flexible and diverse ways, and hoped to bring about a visit by President Halimah as soon as possible. He also looked forward to the JCBC being held as planned in Singapore later this year. 

Focusing on long-term development, Hong said that China is willing to further strengthen cooperation with ASEAN countries in areas such as spearheading regional interconnectivity and enhancing trade and investment.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (standing, left) and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (standing, right) witnessing the MOU-signing at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on 29 April 2019. Representing Singapore is Minister of Trade and Industry Mr Chan Chun Sing (sitting, left) and China's National Development and Reform Commission Vice-Chair Zhang Yong. (SPH)
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (standing, left) and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (standing, right) witnessing the MOU-signing at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on 29 April 2019. Representing Singapore is Minister of Trade and Industry Mr Chan Chun Sing (sitting, left) and China's National Development and Reform Commission Vice-Chair Zhang Yong. (SPH)

Deepening economic and trade cooperation between China and ASEAN

The Covid-19 pandemic has made drastic changes to the world. Some even say that it could reverse globalisation trends. Hong thinks that the pandemic has highlighted the fact that all countries are closely-connected members of this global village — no man is an island. Citing the example of China and ASEAN, he said that a win-win development can only be achieved through cooperation.

Hong noted that while the pandemic has dealt a major blow to global trade and investment levels in the first quarter of the year, the total trade volume between ASEAN and China has increased, with ASEAN becoming China’s top trading partner for the first time ever in the first half of the year. This demonstrates that there is “great potential and huge impetus” for economic and trade cooperation between China and ASEAN. Focusing on long-term development, Hong said that China is willing to further strengthen cooperation with ASEAN countries in areas such as spearheading regional interconnectivity and enhancing trade and investment.

Hong pointed out that China has the BRI, while ASEAN has the “Master Plan on ASEAN Connectivity 2025” — both countries are working towards the same direction in promoting regional connectivity. Additionally, both sides can use the China-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (CSFTA) Upgrade Protocol as a policy incentive to further enhance the facilitation and liberalisation of trade and investment. China also hopes to jointly promote the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) with ASEAN in a bid to accelerate the process of regional integration.

International situation rapidly changing amid the pandemic

The pandemic has brought about more uncertainties to the already turbulent international situation. It also worsened China-US relations, which saw a glimmer of hope in the beginning of the year. Hong emphasised that while there are disagreements between China and the US, there is also room for cooperation between both sides. China does not intend to change the US, and the US can never change China or hinder China’s development. 

Hong believes that the world is currently experiencing changes unseen in a century, and the pandemic is a catalyst for the further evolution of the international situation. “Amid crisis and uncertainty, China firmly believes that the right way forward involves unity, collaboration, mutual benefit, and a win-win scenario for all. Otherwise, the situation would only worsen and get messier, and that is not in the interests of all parties,” he said.

“China does not want to change the US, let alone replace it,” he explained. “That said, the US also needs to understand that wanting to change China is mere wishful thinking. Neither can it hinder China from making progress.”

This file photo taken on 9 November 2017 shows US President Donald Trump (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping attending a business leaders event inside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP)
This file photo taken on 9 November 2017 shows US President Donald Trump (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping attending a business leaders event inside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. (Nicolas Asfouri/AFP)

Hong added that it is a historical fact that China and the US have different social systems, and that China-US relations have developed under such a context. However, while there are disagreements between both countries, it does not mean that there is no room for cooperation. He criticised America's China policy as having seriously regressed, and condemned some politicians for pushing the blame and discrediting China during the pandemic. “China wants to tell the truth [to the world]. No country would accept any form of intentional defamation,” he said.

Hong said while China values developing its relations with the US, it also needs to safeguard its legitimate right to progress. “China does not want to change the US, let alone replace it,” he explained. “That said, the US also needs to understand that wanting to change China is mere wishful thinking. Neither can it hinder China from making progress.”

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wrote in the US magazine Foreign Affairs last month that as the economies of Asia-Pacific countries are closely linked with that of both China and the US, they do not want to be forced to choose between the two. Furthermore, the safety and prosperity of this region is largely determined by whether the US and China “can overcome their differences, build mutual trust, and work constructively to uphold a stable and peaceful international order”.

Hong believes that Lee Hsien Loong’s article epitomises the latter’s thinking of the topic and its issues over the past few years. It was also put forth in the most systematic way. “We highly value what he said about China and the US overcoming institutional and ideological differences, and resolving problems through negotiation so that stable China-US relations can be maintained,” he said.

“Fundamentally speaking, coordination, cooperation, and stable China-US relations are not only in the interests of both countries, but also in the interests of the world. We have always believed this.”

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