Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic and Social Policies Tharman Shanmugaratnam gave a written interview to the 21st Century Business Herald in conjunction with his attendance at the World Economic Forum Summer Davos in Dalian, China from 27 to 28 June 2017. The written interview was published on the 21st Century Business Herald on 27 June 2017 and is available at http://epaper.21jingji.com/html/2017-06/27/content_65184.htm
The English and Chinese versions of the interview are reproduced below.
21st Century: Among Belt and Road Initiative countries, Singapore is one of the key economic partners of China. How would Singapore and China increase cooperation on the Belt and Road initiative?
DPM: Cooperation between Singapore and China on the Belt and Road (B&R) Initiative is substantial and has much potential for further deepening. We can join each other's strengths, to promote the integration of the Asian region and facilitate a new phase in regional growth. According to the PRC Ministry of Commerce statistics, Singapore's investments in China accounted for 85% of total inbound investments from B&R countries, and Chinese investments in Singapore accounted for close to a third of China's total investments to B&R countries.
Our third Government-to-Government project, the China-Singapore (Chongqing) Demonstration Initiative on Strategic Connectivity (CCI), with Chongqing as the operating centre, was designated as a priority demonstration project for the B&R initiative in November 2015. We are currently working on the development of the Southern Transport Corridor linking Western China to Southeast Asia through Chongqing and Singapore which will link the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.
More recently, the two governments signed an MOU on B&R cooperation at the inaugural B&R Forum in May 2017. Cooperation on the B&R initiative was also inserted into the Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation agenda for the first time in February 2017. During Singapore Foreign Minister Dr Vivian Balakrishnan's visit to Beijing just two weeks ago, Minister Balakrishnan and Minister Wang Yi agreed that Singapore and China would build three platforms together under the B&R initiative, namely: connectivity cooperation; financial cooperation; and third-party collaboration.
In the area of financial cooperation, our governments can work together with the private sector to foster deeper cooperation by (a) unlocking greater private sector financing for infrastructure projects; (b) expanding the role of Asia's bond markets and facilitating the participation of institutional investors to complement traditional bank financing sources; and (c) developing appropriate risk management solutions for B&R projects, such as insurance pooling to allow expertise sharing and capacity pooling to offer customised risk protection for large and complex infrastructure projects.
In short, the potential outcomes from Singapore and China's B&R cooperation will be to multiply investments and growth opportunities across the region.
21st Century: Recently, Hong Kong's rail operator MTR Corporation said it is planning to collaborate with China Railway Corp (CRC) to bid for the 350km-long KL-Singapore High Speed Rail project. Earlier, companies from Japan, South Korea, France and the US expressed their interest too.
How do you see China's advantages and disadvantages in building high-speed rail lines? Which form will the HSR project take, EPC or BOT/PPP? If the latter, how many years of operation will be given? When will its tender be?
DPM: Singapore and Malaysia have agreed to conduct an international competitive tender for the High Speed Rail (HSR) link between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. Many Singapore leaders, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, have taken the Chinese HSR and found it comfortable, punctual, and reliable. Given China's extensive HSR experience, we welcome the participation of Chinese companies in the tenders, and I am sure that they will put in high quality, competitive bids.
We expect to call the systems tender for the rail assets and rolling stock in late 2017. It will be a Public-Private Partnership tender jointly called by Singapore and Malaysia. Singapore and Malaysia will give all bids serious consideration in a fair, open and transparent manner.
21st Century: The China-Singapore (Chongqing) Demonstration Initiative on Strategic Connectivity (CCI), the third Government-to-Government level project between Singapore and China, is considered as a model for the B&R initiative as well as China's Western development strategy and Yangtze River Economic Zone strategy.
Please elaborate on the progress of the CCI in the four priority areas of collaboration in finance, aviation, transport and logistics, and info-communication technology. How would the two sides further deepen their cooperation in this project?
DPM: Singapore and China have made good progress since the launch of the China-Singapore (Chongqing) Demonstration Initiative on Strategic Connectivity (CCI) in November 2015, especially in the area of financial services and aviation.
By the end of 2016, USD 3.22 billion worth of cross-border financing deals had already been realised. These cross-border RMB channels have effectively lowered the financing costs of Chongqing corporates by 0.7% in interest rates, which led to savings of RMB 152 million (SGD 30.9 million) in total.
Air connectivity between Singapore and Western China has also been enhanced. The frequency of flights between Chongqing and Singapore has increased from 5-weekly to 14-weekly services, and there are now flights extending to Urumqi. Changi Airports International and Chongqing Airport Group Co. Ltd are also collaborating on a Commercial Management Joint Venture to manage Chongqing Jiangbei International Airport's (CJIA) non-aeronautical businesses. This is a first step to transforming CJIA into a world-class airport.
The CCI provides a platform for Singapore and China to learn from one another. It presents opportunities for Singapore companies to share their expertise and expand their presence into Western China through Chongqing just as how Chinese companies can tap on Singapore as a gateway into Southeast Asia. This creates the mutual hub effect for the benefit of businesses on both sides.
21st Century: Since 2013, Singapore has always been China's largest foreign investor. Have you found any changes in Singapore's investments in China in terms of asset class, sector and geography?
DPM: Singapore's investments in China reached USD 6.2 billion in 2016, making Singapore the largest foreign investor in China for the fourth consecutive year. Most of these investments are in China's manufacturing, real estate, wholesale and retail sectors. While Singapore companies have traditionally invested in China's coastal cities, they have also started to venture into the Central and Western regions in recent years.
With China's huge remaining potential for urbanisation, and the growth of its middle class, there will be more opportunities for Singapore companies to contribute, e.g. by providing quality urban solutions, transport & logistics, lifestyle, education and healthcare.
21st Century: Since 2016, China and Singapore have conducted three rounds of negotiations to upgrade the China-Singapore Free Trade Agreement (CSFTA). What progress has been made? When to conclude the deal? What changes will the upgrade bring?
Our officials have made good progress in the CSFTA upgrade over three rounds of negotiations, since its launch during President Xi Jinping's State Visit to Singapore in November 2015. The scope of the upgrade is comprehensive, and has potential to include enhancements in investment provisions, trade facilitation, and trade remedial measures; as well as improved market access for businesses in trade in goods and services.
To keep abreast of global developments, the upgraded CSFTA will also include new areas such as Competition, E-Commerce, and Environment. Singapore looks forward to working with China towards a substantive, comprehensive and mutually-beneficial CSFTA upgrade, which will enhance support for ongoing and future collaborations between our two countries.
21st Century: The Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) started to include its RMB financial investments as part of its official foreign reserves (OFR) from June 2016 onwards. What is the current level of RMB deposits in Singapore? How do you see the change in the ASEAN's demand for RMB? As the most important financial hub in Southeast Asia, has Singapore sensed any business opportunities from it, particularly in relation to B&R initiative?
DPM: As of March 2017, Singapore's RMB deposits stood at RMB 127 billion (S$25.8 billion).
ASEAN's demand for RMB will likely accelerate, driven by China's growing connectivity with the region and strong cross-border trade and investments. Further, Singapore-based financial institutions are well-positioned to partner Chinese companies in their regional journey, and to deepen China's linkages to Asia through trade, finance and investment.
More than 6,500 Chinese companies have already established presence in Singapore. Many of them have set up regional finance and treasury centres to tap on Singapore's banking and capital markets to finance their regional expansion. The eight Chinese banks in Singapore are also expanding their presence so as to provide funding support for the activities of Chinese and regional corporates.
As a regional financial centre and one of the largest offshore RMB centres in the world, Singapore can play a key role in financing and advancing B&R initiative projects, particularly in Southeast Asia. Singapore banks are actively helping Chinese companies tap on the B&R initiative and expand into Southeast Asia, e.g. UOB's MOU with the China Chamber of International Commerce announced earlier this month. Similarly, Chinese banks in Singapore have also committed more than S$100 billion in financing Singaporean companies involved in B&R initiative projects, including issuance of project bonds to support B&R initiative financing needs. Bank of China (BOC) Singapore branch issued US$600 million of B&R Initiative bonds last month and China Construction Bank (CCB) Singapore branch issued RMB 1 billion (US$146 million ) of B&R initiative bonds in August 2016.
21st Century: Singapore's economy expanded by only 2.0 per cent in 2016, slower than the compounded annual growth rate of 4.1 per cent from 2010 to 2015. How do you forecast Singapore's economic growth for 2017? What are the reasons behind Singapore's struggles with slowing growth over the past few years?
DPM: The recent slower growth of the Singapore economy partly reflects the slower growth of external demand. For example, Singapore's manufacturing, wholesale trade and marine & offshore engineering sectors have seen slower growth in the past few years owing to weaker global demand.
For 2017, Singapore's economic growth is likely to come in higher than the 2 per cent in 2016, in line with the projected improvement in global growth.
However, the fundamental reasons for slower growth are structural, not cyclical. Our labour force is growing much more slowly than before - just like it is in Hong Kong or Korea. Further, productivity growth in the domestically-oriented sectors of the economy has been weak, and lagged behind productivity growth in the outward-oriented sectors, which is strong. Our strategies for the future are therefore aimed at revitalising productivity growth, especially in the domestic sectors of the economy. These efforts are beginning to show results, with more innovation being seen in these sectors.
Over the medium term, Singapore's potential GDP growth would average 2 to 3 per cent per annum, led primarily by productivity growth. This economic growth rate will be better than the performance of most economies at a similar stage of advancement and similarly low labour force growth. It will not be unlike the situation in other advanced East Asian economies. Growth will primarily be led by productivity growth, as local workforce growth continues to slow.
21st Century: In mid-May, China and the US announced the initial results of the 100-day action plan of China-US Comprehensive Economic Dialogue. And the US decided to send a high-level delegation to the Silk Road Forum. This is seen as an indication that US President Donald Trump is adopting a less confrontational approach with Beijing. How does Singapore view the state of China-US relations?
DPM: The most important relationship in the region and globally is between China and the US. It defines the peace, security and prosperity of the region and the world. By virtue of their economic ties and geopolitical weight, both countries have made important contributions to the stability and development of the region.
Economic competition between China and the US is both inevitable and desirable in a dynamic world economy. But there are also deep interdependencies and many opportunities for win-win cooperation. This is true in bilateral trade and investment flows between the two economies. It is also true that China and the US both benefit by upholding an open world order.
We therefore hope that the China-US relationship continues to be strong, stable and mutually beneficial. We want to deepen our ties with both countries and keep both constructively engaged in the region. In short, Singapore wants to be friends with both China and the US.
We welcome the recent positive developments in the China-US relationship under the leadership of President Xi and President Trump. If both countries continue their constructive engagement and win-win cooperation, this will only benefit the region and the world.
21st Century: About its trade strategy, has Singapore decided to give higher priority to RCEP? What expectations do you have for it? When to conclude the deal?
DPM: The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is a key priority for Singapore. It will establish an integrated regional market amongst some of the fastest growing economies in the world, such as China, India, Indonesia and Vietnam. Apart from its economic benefits for the region, the RCEP is also a strategic deal, which should strengthen linkages and mutual interdependence between ASEAN and ASEAN's Free Trade Agreement (FTA) partners.
Singapore is supportive of a high quality RCEP agreement. However, we need to be mindful of the sensitivities and challenges faced by all RCEP Parties, which are at diverse stages of economic development. While we are keen to conclude the RCEP as soon as possible, we are also aware that a quick conclusion of the RCEP cannot come at the expense of a good quality agreement. For the RCEP to work, it has to be substantially meaningful for businesses, and provide a balanced package of benefits for all RCEP Parties. Otherwise, an RCEP agreement in form will not be a useful agreement for businesses around the region, and that would be a lost opportunity for ASEAN and our partners to advance the regional integration agenda.
We have been working closely with all RCEP Parties to maintain good momentum in the RCEP negotiations, and hope to make significant progress this year.
Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Singapore