Sunday 28 April 2019

Belt and Road Initiative can play crucial role in strengthening multilateral cooperation: PM Lee Hsien Loong

Working within such multilateral frameworks only way to solve transnational challenges, he says at the 2nd Belt and Road Forum
By Danson Cheong, China Correspondent In Beijing, The Straits Times, 27 Apr 2019

As a strategy that promotes trade and connectivity, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) can play a crucial role in strengthening cooperation between countries, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

It is coming at a time when the world is seeing a pushback against globalisation, and growing distrust of governments and public institutions, making it harder for countries to work together, he said.

But working within such multilateral frameworks is the only way countries can solve the many complex transnational challenges they face, from terrorism to climate change, PM Lee said at a high-level meeting during the second Belt and Road Forum in Beijing.

"Both countries and their problems have become so interconnected and interdependent," he added.

"All countries, big and small, rely on a stable global order on which we can cooperate productively, resolve disputes peacefully and work together on new areas."

The Prime Minister is on a five-day visit to China, where he is attending the forum for the first time.

He spoke at the meeting along with other world leaders, including Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

The BRI, a plan to revive ancient overland and maritime trade routes connecting China to Europe, Africa and other parts of Asia, is the signature foreign policy and development strategy of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Part of the strategy includes building a network of ports, railways and trading hubs. In doing so, the initiative addresses the need of many countries for better infrastructure and connectivity, said PM Lee.

"Better infrastructure will enhance trade and economic cooperation not just between other countries and China, but also with one another," he added.

Singapore was an early and strong supporter of the BRI, with its participation focusing on infrastructure and financial connectivity, cooperation in third countries, and providing professional and legal services.

On the last point, he said that Singapore is a neutral third-party venue with legal centres that allow BRI countries and companies to resolve commercial disputes efficiently. The country also has the shortest resolution time worldwide for standardised commercial disputes, he said.

"We hope we will be able to provide some of the soft infrastructure to help pull some of the BRI projects together," he said.

Singapore was also cooperating with China on the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative which, among other things, aims to link up the overland and maritime trunks of the BRI.

It has so far reduced by two-thirds the time required for goods from western China to reach Southeast Asia, improved flow of trade and finances, and smoothed out customs procedures.

He also said the initiative was one of the tangible outcomes from the BRI.

Now, six years after the BRI was mooted, it is timely to "review progress and to discuss perspectives on the way forward", said PM Lee.

Yesterday, he met his Vietnamese counterpart Nguyen Xuan Phuc, who is also in Beijing to attend the forum.

Both prime ministers expressed satisfaction with the expanding cooperation between their countries, and agreed to enhance such efforts in areas including trade and investment, science and technology, and financial services, said the Prime Minister's Office in a statement.

The leaders also encouraged companies to explore opportunities in their countries.

In the evening, Mr and Mrs Lee, along with other foreign leaders and their spouses, were also hosted to a welcome banquet by Mr Xi and his wife Peng Liyuan.

PM Lee is also expected to speak at a Leaders' Roundtable today that will be chaired by Mr Xi.

Chinese President Xi Jinping urges more countries to join Belt and Road project
Leaders at BRI forum agree to further open markets, push for green growth
By Danson Cheong, China Correspondent In Beijing, The Sunday Times, 28 Apr 2019

Chinese President Xi Jinping has called for more countries to join his pet mega project, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), even as world leaders expressed their support and rejected protectionism.

In a joint communique at the end of the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, Mr Xi and foreign leaders agreed to further open their markets and promote green growth and sustainable financing for BRI projects.

Mr Xi made similar points at a 15-minute press conference that closed the three-day event, where Beijing has sought to address international criticism over the project to revive old trade links.

"All interested countries are welcome to join us. We are committed to supporting open, clean and green development, and rejecting protectionism," he said.

The press conference - where Mr Xi did not take questions - was held after meetings with the world leaders attending the summit, the second edition of the forum.

Conceived in 2013 by Mr Xi, the BRI aims to build a vast mercantilist framework linking China to Europe, Africa and the rest of Asia by building a network of ports, roads, railways and trading hubs - reviving ancient overland and maritime trade routes.

But the plan has also been criticised as being a form of "debt-trap diplomacy", where poor countries are saddled with loans and become pliant to China.

It is also said to support polluting industries, and to benefit China more than partner countries.

Beijing has sought to rebrand the BRI at this year's forum as a green and sustainable platform that is open and inclusive.

The joint communique released by leaders yesterday mentioned the word "green" seven times. It was not mentioned in the communique of the 2017 forum.

On the first day of the forum, Beijing also released an analysis framework aimed at helping countries manage debt.

Yesterday, it released a list of 283 deliverables, including initiatives on cultural exchanges, scholarships and programmes for the youth in partner countries.

It also noted the latest countries to sign on to the BRI, such as Peru, Italy and Cyprus, and listed deals that Beijing is inking with Singapore, including one on third-party cooperation.

"In all Belt and Road cooperation projects, the government will provide guidance, enterprises will act as the main players, and market principles will apply," said Mr Xi.

"This will make the projects more sustainable, and create a fair and non-discriminatory environment for foreign investors."

There were 37 foreign leaders, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and all nine other Asean leaders, at this year's forum, up from 29 in 2017.

Earlier in the day, PM Lee told a Leaders' Roundtable that the BRI was a platform where China could both assume a position of greater influence and contribute more to the world.

Mr Xi's press conference yesterday also brought to an end an event that at times seemed disorganised and chaotic, with reporters and delegates given hazy schedules or left unclear about which discussions they could attend.

But observers say the clear message coming out of the event is that China wants to shift the BRI onto a more multilateral platform.

"With more multilateral participation, some of the misunderstandings about the BRI will be addressed," said Dr Wang Huiyao, president of the Beijing-based Centre for China and Globalisation think-tank.

Mr Daniel Russel, vice-president of the US-based Asia Society Policy Institute, said: "China's challenge now is to demonstrate that the forum's lofty rhetoric about 'Green BRI' and 'Clean BRI' has been translated into action throughout the Belt and Road."

PM Lee Hsien Loong suggests ways for Belt and Road Initiative to maximise long-term benefits
Projects can develop local talent, go beyond bilateral cooperation
By Danson Cheong, China Correspondent In Beijing, The Sunday Times, 28 Apr 2019

China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is a platform through which the country can assume a more influential place in the world, while at the same time fulfilling the expectations of other countries for it to contribute more to the global system.

Speaking at a Leaders' Roundtable meeting of the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing yesterday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that as China has developed and grown in influence, it is shifting the global strategic balance.

"How China performs its prominent global role, and how the international community adjusts to China's growing influence, will determine whether all of us, and all our countries, can enjoy continued peace and prosperity," PM Lee said.

The Prime Minister was on his third day of a five-day visit to the Chinese capital, where he is attending the forum for the first time.

Addressing the discussion, which was attended by 37 heads of state and government - including the other nine Asean leaders - and hosted by Chinese President Xi Jinping, PM Lee said the BRI has deepened China's links with other countries.

Singapore has been working with China on projects like the joint-government Chongqing Connectivity Initiative, and promoting areas such as financial connectivity.

The BRI - which envisions linking China to Europe, Africa and Asia through a network of ports, railways and roads - is helping to meet the infrastructure needs of developing countries, he said.

"New roads, ports and railways built under the BRI have enhanced physical connectivity between cities and countries, and in time should catalyse economic growth," said PM Lee, adding that the next phase should focus on maximising long-term benefits.

He made three suggestions: for BRI projects to focus on developing indigenous capabilities; for China to partner other countries to work on projects in third-party markets; and to strengthen the BRI's inclusivity, transparency and market-driven approach.

Critics have raised concerns about the BRI, saying it saddles developing countries with unsustainable debt, pollutes the environment and benefits Chinese companies more than local ones.

On his first point, PM Lee said other countries will benefit more if BRI projects develop local talent, involve local businesses and transfer more technology. This will also boost the quality and sustainability of infrastructure projects.

Second, China should also move beyond bilateral models of cooperation, or what PM Lee described as "hub-and-spoke" arrangements with China.

By working with others in third countries, new doors may be opened to projects that were otherwise not feasible, he said.

Lastly, ensuring that projects are economically viable will boost accountability, chances of success and confidence in future projects.

"A prospering region with China fully integrated, linked together by an open regional cooperation infrastructure, will reinforce the open, rules-based international order and multilateral trading system, which has benefited all of us," he added.

Yesterday, PM Lee also met Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, who is in Beijing to attend the forum.

The Prime Minister's Office (PMO) said in a statement that both leaders affirmed their countries' relations and discussed urban planning and population issues.

Both leaders agreed to boost cooperation in digital trade and smart cities, said the PMO.

Today, PM Lee will attend the opening ceremony of the 2019 International Horticultural Exhibition - hosted by the Chinese President and his wife - and visit the Singapore Garden.


Singapore-China ties will remain warm under new leaders: PM Lee Hsien Loong
China and Singapore’s relationship is not personal to any particular leader
By Danson Cheong, China Correspondent In Beijing, The Straits Times, 30 Apr 2019

The warm ties between China and Singapore will continue even after new leaders take the helm in Singapore, as the relationship is in both countries' interests and not personal to any particular leader, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.

Singapore has been preparing for a transition for a long time, getting younger ministers to actively engage China on various bilateral platforms, as the country takes steps for a successor to be at the helm, said PM Lee.

"I hope this (leadership transition) will go smoothly, and I think the Chinese side very much wants the relationship and the friendship to continue," he said.

"It's in the interest of both countries; it's not personal to a few or to particular leaders."

PM Lee was responding to a question on how his government's leadership transition would affect bilateral ties, during a wrap-up interview with Singapore reporters on his five-day visit to the Chinese capital, where he attended the second Belt and Road Forum.

Earlier, he met China's top two leaders - President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang - and witnessed the signing of five agreements on Belt and Road cooperation between both countries.

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat's promotion to deputy prime minister was announced last week, in a move that clearly signals he will be Singapore's next prime minister.

He will become Singapore's sole deputy prime minister tomorrow, when both current deputy prime ministers - Mr Teo Chee Hean and Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam - become senior ministers.

PM Lee noted that besides Mr Heng, other younger leaders have also been actively engaging with China, on the provincial level and at the apex bilateral platform: the Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation (JCBC).

They include Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing, National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, Social and Family Development Minister Desmond Lee, as well as Second Minister for Finance and Education Indranee Rajah.

PM Lee also said Singapore has told China that Mr Heng would be taking over as co-chair of the JCBC from Mr Teo.

"The Chinese side has said 'yes' - they welcome this, they know him because he has interacted with them on many occasions, including when President Xi and Premier Li came to visit Singapore and he was the accompanying minister. So they have a direct feel of him."

On his own relationship with Mr Xi, PM Lee said he was "very comfortable" working with the Chinese leader and hoped this would continue. "I have always enjoyed my meetings with him."

He added that they had discussed the direction of their countries' relationship and how it fits into "China's broader scheme of things".

Turning to the forum - which he was attending for the first time - with almost 40 world leaders, PM Lee said Singapore made suggestions on how the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) can take a more sustainable approach going forward.

The BRI is China's mega plan to build a network of ports, railways, roads and trading hubs linking it to Europe, Africa and parts of Asia.

Mr Xi had pledged during the forum to make the BRI a project that is clean, green and financially sustainable, hitting back at criticism of his signature policy.

PM Lee said: "(Those are) the right objectives to aim for. Of course, the critical thing is to see them (implemented) in the actual projects which come to fruition."

On some analysts casting Singapore and Hong Kong as rival financial centres for BRI projects, he said it was not a zero-sum game.

"We have not quite the same roles; our links are in South-east Asia and wider to South Asia and Australia and New Zealand. Hong Kong's links are to China and more focused that way," he said.

"I don't see us as in intense competition with them. I think there is scope for both."

PM Lee meets top Chinese leaders, discusses areas for tie-ups
PM Lee and President Xi also take stock of 'good progress' in three inter-govt projects
By Tan Dawn Wei, China Bureau Chief In Beijing, The Straits Times, 30 Apr 2019

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong met Chinese President Xi Jinping and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang separately yesterday and discussed the progress of governmental collaboration projects and other areas where they can work together.

They also exchanged views on regional and global developments, including relations between China and the United States, as well as the early conclusion of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), said PM Lee's press secretary in a statement.

The RCEP is a free trade agreement between the 10 Asean member states and six other Asia-Pacific nations, including China.

Negotiations have stretched for more than six years but are expected to be sewn up this year.

One project which Mr Xi and PM Lee discussed was to twin Singapore and Shenzhen as smart cities under the Asean Smart Cities Network, and as part of Singapore's broader engagement of the Greater Bay Area, China's ambitious plan to link its Guangdong province with Hong Kong and Macau to become an economic powerhouse.

The two leaders also took stock of the "good progress" made in the three inter-governmental projects: China-Singapore Suzhou Industrial Park, Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city and China-Singapore (Chongqing) Demonstration Initiative on Strategic Connectivity.

Mr Xi noted that next year will mark the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and Singapore, and bilateral relations now face new opportunities for development.

Meanwhile, the two leaders reaffirmed their countries' multifaceted cooperation guided by the Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation, which meets annually.

State news agency Xinhua reported Mr Xi as saying both countries should continue to deepen mutual trust, respect each other's core interests and concerns, and support each other on the road of common development.

PM Lee was in Beijing to attend the second Belt and Road Forum, along with nearly 40 other leaders from various countries.

Singapore has been an early supporter of Mr Xi's signature foreign policy campaign, and has partnerships with China in four areas under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

These are infrastructure connectivity, financial services, joint collaboration to help other BRI countries, as well as cross-border commercial dispute resolution.

With Mr Li, PM Lee witnessed the signing of five agreements on trade, law enforcement and the BRI.

PM Lee and Mrs Lee were hosted to lunch by Mr Li and his wife Cheng Hong.

Singapore, China ink deals on trade, Belt and Road projects
By Tan Dawn Wei, China Bureau Chief, The Straits Times, 30 Apr 2019

BEIJING • Singapore and China signed five agreements yesterday, strengthening further their collaboration on trade, law enforcement and projects under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Singapore's Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) sealed two new partnerships. In one, Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing and Shanghai Mayor Ying Yong agreed to set up a ministerial-level Singapore-Shanghai Comprehensive Cooperation Council.

It will be a platform for both sides to cooperate in six areas: the Belt and Road; financial services; technology and innovation; ease of doing business; urban governance; and people-to-people exchanges.

Incoming deputy prime minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat and Mr Ying will co-chair the council, while Senior Minister of State for Law and Health Edwin Tong and Shanghai's Vice-Mayor Xu Kunlin will be deputy co-chairs.

Enterprise Singapore and Shanghai's Foreign Affairs Office will be its secretariats.

The first meeting is on May 24 in Shanghai.

While the council is the eighth business panel Singapore has with China, it is Shanghai's first comprehensive institutionalised platform with a foreign country, said an MTI statement.

Mr Chan also signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with vice-chair Zhang Yong of China's state planner, the National Development and Reform Commission, on an implementation framework for cooperation in third-party markets.

The agreement, taking further an MOU signed in April last year, identifies logistics, e-commerce, infrastructure and professional services such as financial and legal services, as areas for collaboration in third-party markets under the BRI.

"As China enters its next phase of economic transformation, these MOUs will strengthen Singapore's participation in China's new growth strategies to mutual benefit. The newly established Singapore-Shanghai Comprehensive Cooperation Council will help to anchor Singapore's engagements of China's key financial and business hub, and tap the economic integration of the Yangtze River Delta," said Mr Chan in a statement.

The agreement will also bolster Singapore's role as a launch pad into South-east Asian markets for Chinese companies looking for opportunities along the Belt and Road, he added.

MTI figures show trade between Singapore and Shanghai hit US$13.5 billion (S$18.4 billion) last year, accounting for nearly 14 per cent of Singapore's trade with China.

As at the end of last year, Singapore had more than 4,800 projects in Shanghai, amounting to US$15.2 billion worth of cumulative actual investments.

Singapore was the largest foreign investment destination for China along the Belt and Road last year, capturing close to 23 per cent of the total investment outflow from China to Belt and Road countries.

Singapore and China have joined forces in third-party markets in sectors from infrastructure to financing to professional services.

The Singapore Customs also signed two agreements with its Chinese counterpart on closer collaboration in tackling customs offences and the setting up of a data exchange system.

In the first agreement, both sides will share findings from new customs enforcement equipment and techniques.

The second MOU spells out the implementation of an electronic data exchange system that was agreed on under the China-Singapore Free Trade Agreement upgrade signed last November.

This system will allow for the faster transfer of information for trade and eliminates the need for companies to submit hard-copy certificates of origin. It will start on July 1.

Singapore-based infrastructure consultancy Surbana Jurong and China's state-owned Silk Road Fund also inked a co-investment deal.

The two sides will set up a US$500 million infrastructure co-investment platform that will fund infrastructure projects in South-east Asia.

Belt and Road will be clean, green and sustainable: Xi Jinping
Chinese President makes pledge in bid to soothe fears over mega project, which he says is not an exclusive club
By Tan Dawn Wei, China Bureau Chief In Beijing, The Straits Times, 27 Apr 2019

Chinese President Xi Jinping has pledged to make his outward-looking Belt and Road mega project clean, green and financially sustainable, even as the country continues with its task of housekeeping to welcome more foreign investors.

In a half-hour speech yesterday aimed as much at the recipient countries of his Belt and Road campaign as it was at the United States and other developed nations, President Xi attempted to soothe fears over the project.

"The Belt and Road is not an exclusive club," Mr Xi said, alluding to suggestions that the project was a vehicle for Beijing's global ambitions.

Mr Xi also appeared to tacitly acknowledge the criticism levelled both at his signature diplomatic policy as well as the country's handling of foreign businesses.

He was speaking to dozens of world leaders and as many as 5,000 representatives from 150 countries who have gathered in Beijing for a three-day summit on the grand project to link Asia to Europe and Africa through a network of roads, railway lines and ports.

China has invested US$90 billion (S$122 billion) in various infrastructure projects, while banks have given out more than US$300 billion in loans, according to the latest figures from the Chinese authorities.

But controversy has dogged the initiative for years, especially after a string of troubled projects hit the headlines and raised alarm bells over how China was plunging poor countries into unsustainable debt.

The East Asian giant has also come under fire for funding polluting projects such as coal plants and for lacking transparency in its deals.

"We must adhere to the concept of openness, greenness and cleanliness," said President Xi at the China National Convention Centre yesterday. "Operate in the sun and fight corruption together with zero tolerance."

He also vowed to adopt international rules and standards, including greater accountability in the procurement, tendering and bidding of projects.

World leaders at the summit held up the Belt and Road Initiative as a new model of globalisation countering a wave of protectionist sentiments in an increasingly polarised world.

Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the Chinese-led scheme can play a crucial role in making multilateral cooperation stronger, with its focus on trade and connectivity.

Yesterday, President Xi also spent time outlining how the country intends to open its door wider to foreign investments.

In a nod to nagging complaints ahead of another round of trade talks in Beijing next week, President Xi promised to beef up enforcement of intellectual property infringement, put a stop to forced technology transfer and abolish "unreasonable regulations, subsidies and practices".

President Xi yesterday also took a veiled dig at the United States over its actions against telecoms giant Huawei and treatment of Chinese students and scholars after reports surfaced that the American authorities were delaying their visa applications or denying them.

China has reportedly also been doing the same to American academics.

Said President Xi: "We hope other countries will also create an enabling environment of investment, treat Chinese enterprises, international students and scholars equally, and provide a fair and friendly environment for their normal international exchanges and cooperation activities."

Singapore well placed to contribute to Belt and Road: PM Lee Hsien Loong's interview with Xinhua News Agency on 22 Apr 2019
Republic can play role in financial services, third-country investments, human resources
By Danson Cheong, China Correspondent In Beijing, The Straits Times, 24 Apr 2019

Ties between Singapore and China have grown tremendously since they were established in 1990, and there is great potential for them to develop further, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said.

He drew attention to China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), saying Singapore was well placed to make a "modest contribution" in this area.

He said Singapore hoped to be able to play a constructive role in financial services, third-country investments and human resource development.

PM Lee was speaking to Chinese state news agency Xinhua ahead of a visit to Beijing where he will attend the second Belt and Road forum, which starts tomorrow, along with almost 40 other heads of state and government.

He cited the Chongqing Connectivity Initiative (CCI) - a joint government project inaugurated in 2015 to improve transport and trade links with China's less developed western regions - as one area where Singapore felt it could make a useful contribution.

The CCI aims to boost land-sea transport connectivity, linking up the overland and maritime trunks of the BRI and connecting western China to South-east Asia and the world via Singapore.

"We see this as a very ambitious and important initiative. We are very glad that it has the full support of the Chinese government.

"And we believe if it works, it will be a service to all the countries in the region, and will benefit China as well," he said in the interview published yesterday.

The BRI - the signature foreign policy and development strategy of Chinese President Xi Jinping - aims to revive ancient overland and sea trade routes, and connect China to Europe, Africa and other parts of Asia by building a network of ports, roads, railways and industrial hubs.

Mooted by Mr Xi in 2013, Beijing recently said it has inked 173 deals with 125 countries and 29 international organisations on the mega-project.

Commenting on the BRI, PM Lee said: "It is a project which will take many years to bring to fruition, and will probably be one which will never have an ending point."

During the forum, he will take part in a high-level meeting at Beijing's National Convention Centre and a leaders' roundtable at Yanqi Lake in the suburb of Huairou.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras are among the other leaders attending the forum.

During the Xinhua interview, PM Lee also touched on the changing international trading order and how Singapore could maintain economic growth.

Asked by Xinhua to comment on Singapore-China ties, he said relations between both countries have "transformed beyond recognition" since they were established in 1990.

Singapore has benefited from China's reforms and opening up, a change that has been a "tremendous boon" to the world, said PM Lee.

China is Singapore's biggest trading partner. Chinese data also shows that Singapore is China's biggest foreign investor.

"We have investments all over China, especially in the coastal regions and the big cities, but increasingly into the inland provinces as well," he said.

Singapore, which was coordinator country for Asean-China relations last year, has also strived to foster deeper regional ties. In particular, it is working with China on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, an Asean-led free trade pact.

PM Lee said he hopes these efforts will enable China to integrate constructively and peacefully into the regional and global system.

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