Lawrence Wong meets Chinese Premier, takes over as leader overseeing cooperation with China

It was the first meeting between the two men since they were both promoted in 2022 to the second-most senior posts in their respective countries.

Tan Dawn Wei

Tan Dawn Wei

The Straits Times


Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong (left) said he was happy to see Chinese Premier Li Qiang again, "in a different capacity". PHOTO: MINISTRY OF COMMUNICATIONS AND INFORMATION

May 17, 2023

BEIJING – Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong met Chinese Premier Li Qiang on Tuesday, laying the ground for a refreshed relationship between Singapore’s fourth-generation leadership and China’s new leaders.

It was the first meeting between the two men since they were both promoted in 2022 to the second-most senior posts in their respective countries.

Bilateral relations are also on an elevated trajectory, after an official upgrade in April to an “all-round, high-quality, future-oriented partnership”.

Mr Wong, 50, acknowledged as much when he met Mr Li, 63, at the Great Hall of the People. Mr Wong said he was happy to see Mr Li again – “but in a different capacity, for both me and you”.

The two had previously met in Shanghai in 2018 when Mr Wong was part of a delegation led by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. Mr Wong was then National Development Minister and Mr Li was the financial hub’s party chief hosting them.

Last June, Mr Wong was promoted to deputy prime minister, signalling his standing as Singapore’s next leader. Mr Li was promoted to No. 2 in the Politburo Standing Committee – the apex of power in China – in October and was officially appointed premier in March 2023.

PM Lee had told Mr Li during his visit to China in March that Mr Wong was heading Singapore’s fourth-generation leadership team. At Tuesday’s meeting, Mr Li told Mr Wong that PM Lee had “formally introduced you to me”.

Mr Wong is also now responsible for Singapore’s cooperation with China. He takes over from Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat as co-chair of the Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation (JCBC), the top platform for Singapore-China collaboration which high-profile inter-governmental projects come under.

“So we attach great importance to and welcome your visit this time,” said Mr Li.

PM Lee had held talks with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li in March, when the two countries redefined their bilateral relationship to one focusing on high-quality and forward-looking collaboration.

“Our next task is to deliver on a new relationship with a new characterisation,” said Mr Li, adding that the upgraded partnership should take into account the big picture in the long term, and also specific areas of cooperation.

“I’m confident that with the new characterisation, our relationship will grow from strength to strength and our people will benefit from it,” said the Chinese Premier.

In turn, Mr Wong said he was in Beijing so soon after PM Lee’s visit “to build on the momentum of the visit and to see how we can do more together”.

He also introduced to Mr Li his colleagues from the fourth-generation leadership who were accompanying him – National Development Minister Desmond Lee, Senior Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and National Development Sim Ann, Senior Minister of State for Manpower and Defence Zaqy Mohamad, and Minister of State for Trade and Industry and Culture, Community and Youth Low Yen Ling.

A statement from the Prime Minister’s Office said both Mr Wong and Mr Li exchanged views on how both sides could further enhance cooperation, especially in new areas such as digitalisation, energy and sustainability. They also agreed on more people-to-people exchanges, restoring flight connectivity and facilitating people flows. They took stock of the three inter-governmental projects in Suzhou, Tianjin and Chongqing, as well as ventures in Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

On Tuesday, Mr Wong also met his counterpart, Executive Vice-Premier Ding Xuexiang, who was also promoted in China’s leadership reshuffle.

Mr Ding will be China’s new co-chair of the JCBC. He inherits the job from Mr Han Zheng, who retired from the Politburo Standing Committee and is now China’s Vice-President.

The annual JCBC summit, into its 19th edition this year, is co-chaired at the deputy prime minister and executive vice-premier level, and sets the direction for bilateral collaboration.

Both Mr Wong and Mr Ding said they are looking forward to discussing how to make full use of the JCBC and other mechanisms to realise the new upgraded partnership.

“It’s not just a change of name because each adjective in this new partnership means something and is important to both sides,” Mr Wong told Mr Ding at their meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse, where Chinese leaders host foreign dignitaries.

“But we start from a very strong base because we have comprehensive linkages between our two countries built up over many decades, and we have government-to-government projects, provincial-level cooperation as well as many platforms for exchanges and interactions.”

Mr Ding, who was promoted to the Politburo Standing Committee along with Mr Li last October, noted that while both he and Mr Wong are newly appointed JCBC co-chairs, Mr Wong has been an active participant in bilateral cooperation for some time, having been Singapore’s leader for business councils with Shanghai and Tianjin.

“I am a new participant in this aspect, so I have to conscientiously learn from you,” said Mr Ding, with a chuckle.

Mr Wong, who is also Finance Minister, was hosted to lunch by his finance counterpart, Mr Liu Kun, on Tuesday. His visit ends on Wednesday.

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