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Wang Yi visit: Singapore pledges to work with China amid US overtures

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 14/9/2021 Dewey Sim in Singapore and Kok Xinghui in Singapore
a group of people sitting on a bench: Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi meets Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Istana, or Presidential Palace, in Singapore. Photo: EPA © EPA-EFE Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi meets Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Istana, or Presidential Palace, in Singapore. Photo: EPA

Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Tuesday sought to emphasise that bilateral ties with China remained on an even keel after holding talks with the visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

Wang's two-day visit to the city state was the third stop in a tour of the region that has already taken in Cambodia and Vietnam.

The Chinese diplomat is due to arrive in South Korea later on Tuesday.

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"We reaffirmed the long-standing ties between our countries, and had a productive and candid discussion on international and regional developments," Lee wrote on Facebook after meeting Wang in the presidential palace, the Istana.

"Despite challenging global circumstances in this pandemic, we have continued working closely, sharing resources and expertise to better manage the outbreak," he said.

"Singapore welcomes China's continued contribution in our part of the world, and will continue working with China to build a more harmonious and peaceful world."

Analysts said Wang's visit to Singapore - his second since the Covid-19 pandemic began early last year - was aimed at underscoring China's economic and strategic interests amid increasing American engagement in the neighbourhood.

In recent months, top Washington officials including Vice-President Kamala Harris and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin have visited the region.

a statue of a man and a woman standing in front of a flag: US Vice-President Kamala Harris and Vietnam's President Nguyen Xuan Phuc at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi, Vietnam, in August. Photo: AP © Provided by South China Morning Post US Vice-President Kamala Harris and Vietnam's President Nguyen Xuan Phuc at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi, Vietnam, in August. Photo: AP

Harris in her visit to Singapore and Vietnam in August said the United States was eager to boost its economic and trade links with Southeast Asia.

"China is underlining how it is equally, if not more, engaged in the region," said Dylan Loh, an assistant professor of public policy and global affairs at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University.

Wang's visit also reflected China's interest in pushing back against the recent US visits, said Charles Dunst, an associate with geopolitical risk firm Eurasia Group's Global Macro practice. "China views Southeast Asia as its backyard and remains frustrated by the US' continued presence there," he said.

On Monday, Wang held talks with Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat and Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan.

The Chinese foreign ministry said Wang had discussed pandemic cooperation during his meeting with Heng, and told the Singaporean official that "politicising the source of the virus and blaming others" would undermine international pandemic cooperation.

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Beijing has repeatedly said the US is fixated on playing the "blame game" after President Joe Biden called for an investigation into the origin of the virus. This came after allegations that Covid-19 had leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan, the initial epicentre of the virus outbreak. China has denied the claims.

Chong Ja Ian, an associate professor in the political science department at the National University of Singapore, said Wang's remarks criticising vaccine nationalism seemed "to be a subtle jab at developed countries hoarding vaccines, even as much of Southeast Asia is suffering from high levels of infections".

In his talks with Balakrishnan, Wang said Beijing remained committed to working with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to maintain regional peace and stability.

China, the world's no. 2 economy, is the top trading partner of the 10-nation bloc but ties have been complicated by the South China Sea dispute.

Beijing claims almost all of the resource-rich waters, but Asean countries with coastlines in the area - Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Indonesia - each say such claims transgress their rightful territorial waters. China says it has historic rights over the waters.

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During his visit to Vietnam, Wang told his counterparts that both countries needed to refrain from unilateral action in the sea that could complicate and magnify the row.

Loh, the academic, said one of the key priorities of Wang's regional tour was trade. He suggested that Wang was there to say that China and Southeast Asian countries' economies were closely intertwined, and that much of the region's post-pandemic recovery would be shaped by Beijing.

The future of the Belt and Road Initiative - China's ambitious plan to boost global trade and connectivity, as well as the successful ratification of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade pact were likely to have been discussed during Wang's tour, analysts said.

Singapore and Vietnam key stops for China's Wang Yi on Asian friendship tour

"A stable external economic environment and the relationships therein is critical as China tackles thorny domestic reforms and pushes forward with its dual circulation policy," Loh said.

Separately, as part of a dialogue, defence officials from Singapore and China held a video conference on Tuesday, including China's Deputy Chief of Joint Staff, Lieutenant General Shao Yuanming. Both sides reaffirmed warm defence relations and pledged to strengthen defence cooperation.

Still, Dunst of Eurasia Group suggested that Wang's Southeast Asia visit, similar to those by Harris and Austin, would probably not move the needle as countries appreciated their ties with Beijing and Washington and were "extracting goods" from both.

The National University of Singapore's Chong said given China's emphasis on cooperation with Singapore and Asean and on the pandemic and vaccines, Beijing was showing that it was not putting pressure on the city state and the region.

"This may be somewhat in response to Harris's comment that the US will not force countries to choose. It shows that Beijing too can be magnanimous," he said.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

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