Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan met with China’s new Foreign Minister Qin Gang in a three and a half hour meeting on Feb. 20 in Beijing, China.
Fifth visit since pandemic
Vivian was on a three-day visit to China from Feb. 19 to Feb. 21, his fifth since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, and was accompanied by Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Sim Ann.
While he was there, he met with Politburo member and Communist Party Secretary of Beijing Yin Li, Minister of the International Department of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Liu Jianchao.
He also met with Singaporeans living in Beijing for work and studies.
The main purpose of the meetings with Yin and Liu was to reaffirm the longstanding China – Singapore relationship, which remained strong amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, and also to discuss how people-to-people links might gradually return to pre-pandemic levels.
Return to normalcy
At a doorstop interview at the end of the visit, Vivian spoke about how he was struck by the return to normalcy, saying that he had even been caught in several traffic jams, and that the flight that he had taken was similarly full.
During the pandemic period, Singapore and China had supported each other at “critical moments”, albeit sometimes outside of public eye.
This included through the various joint initiatives such as the three government to government projects, such as the Tianjin EcoCity, which would commemorate its 15th year anniversary this year.
But as China opened up, Vivian expected more face to face meetings between leaders, as well as businesses moving forward.
A key focus for Singapore – China relations moving forward would be the return to normalcy for travel.
Vivian noted that “over the last few weeks, there has been a progressive return” for travel between the two countries, but “we are not there yet”.
Currently there were 52 flights a week between Singapore and China, about 15% of what they were pre-pandemic.
Vivian said that the immediate aim was to restore flights to pre-pandemic levels, he warned that there was no established timeline for when that might occur.
Vivian also met with Foreign Minister Qin Gang in a three and a half hour meeting that he described as “excellent”.
Saying that the meeting with Qin, who was appointed foreign minister in December 2022, was a “very good in depth discussion”.
He described Qin Gang as a “very accomplished diplomat” and “a good man”, with extensive experience in Europe and the United States, where he had served as ambassador until last year.
Vivian said that he expected to see more of him at events such as the Asean conference, and that Qin was already on a state visit to the Asean region visiting Indonesia.
Vivian said that he did not anticipate a shift in approach from China with the new foreign minister, here he specifically spoke about Asean and the region, and that there was an expectation of continuity.
That continuity was represented by the gradual progress made in initiatives such as the that of the China-Asean free trade deal, first agreed in 2002 and upgraded in 2016.
This deal would pave the way for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which expanded beyond Asean and China to include Asean plus nations such as Japan, New Zealand, Australia, and South Korea.
Vivian said that this was particularly significant in a time where globalisation was in retreat around the world.
A partner such as China continuing to make progress in agreeing and upgrading economic ties was strategically significant.
If there were to be any difference in interactions and engagement with China in upcoming years, Vivian said that it would be that they would accelerate in the upcoming years.
But he also stressed that that there were other issues where progress was needed such as the South China Sea Code of Conduct negotiations.
While progress on the code of conduct would not solve all problems, it would go some way in enhancing confidence and ensuring stability and peace.
Vivian also met with China’s Director of the Taiwan Affairs Office, Song Tao.
Tensions in the Taiwan Strait, never low, have been escalating since the visit of then U.S. Speaker Nancy Pelosi in Aug. 2022.
Vivian emphasised Singapore’s stance as a “long time friend of both sides of the Taiwan Strait”, saying that Singapore “has consistently supported the peaceful development of cross-strait relations.”
Top image via Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Singapore