Singapore's Lee cements China ties with visit

In this picture taken on November 9, 2014, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (L) shakes hands with China's President Xi Jinping (R) during their meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on November 9, 2014. (AFP Photo/Pool/Feng Li)

Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s visit to China this week signals efforts on both sides to reaffirm relations that have showed strains over the past year – both in its timing and number of high-level meetings.

Lee began a three-day official visit Tuesday, getting face time with China’s top officials as they prepare for a once-every-five-years party congress next month. He is due to meet with President Xi Jinping later Wednesday, after meeting three other members of the Communist Party’s supreme Politburo Standing Committee: Premier Li Keqiang, national legislature chief Zhang Dejiang and top graft-buster Wang Qishan.

“This is an extremely high-profile visit that happened at an extremely critical time,” said Li Mingjiang, coordinator of the China program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. “It shows the high-level connection between the two nations is stable and they highly regard each other in the relationship.”

Singapore expects to be at the forefront of the region’s relations with China next year, when the city-state heads the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The bloc’s summits have sometimes become a platform for the airing of grievances with China, especially over its efforts to assert expansive claims to the South China Sea.

Lee’s visit helps quiet speculation over his relationship with Beijing after Hong Kong authorities detained a shipment of Singaporean armoured personnel carriers returning from a training exercise with China’s rival, Taiwan. Singapore and China accounted for 66 billion dollars in two-way trade last year – representing 13 percent of the city-state’s total – and Lee is eager not to miss out on Xi’s “Belt and Road” global trade-and-infrastructure initiative.

Lee is also scheduled to visit the US in October. Travelling to Beijing now fits with Singapore’s longstanding efforts to navigate between the two powers, said Ja Ian Chong, an assistant professor of political science with the National University of Singapore.

“The Lee administration and the current Beijing leadership have incentives to smooth over relations before Singapore rotates into the ASEAN chair next year,” he said.

Li told his guest Tuesday that China has always valued its ties with Singapore, a relationship built on mutual respect and equal treatment. Lee said Singapore would promote stronger Asean-China cooperation during its chairmanship.

The visit comes at a sensitive time for Xi, who’s preparing for a party congress next month in which as many as five members of the Standing Committee could be replaced. A key question is whether Wang – the 69-year-old architect of Xi’s historic anti-corruption drive – will be among the older members who retire to make way for new blood.

Lee is due to visit Fujian, a southern province where Xi worked for more than 17 years, on Thursday. – Bloomberg