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[SINGAPORE] The bilateral relationship between Singapore and China is one that has flourished ever since the two countries established diplomatic ties back in 1990, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.
Two-way trade has increased enormously in the last six years, he said, pointing out that China has also recently overtaken Malaysia as Singapore's top trading partner.
Mr Lee was speaking in both English and Mandarin during an hour-long dinner dialogue at the annual FutureChina Global Forum, which began yesterday.
The two-day event, now into its fifth year, is organised by Business China. This year's edition brings together more than 60 experts on China issues to discuss the latest developments in the world's second-largest economy.
Mr Lee, who is also the patron of Business China, told his 600-strong audience at the Shangri-La Hotel that the strong ties enjoyed by Singapore and China extend beyond trade.
He noted how some 2.3 million people from China come to Singapore every year, which works out to one Chinese visitor for every two people living in the Republic.
"It's a huge number. It shows that they are aware of us, that they find Singapore interesting, that they enjoy visiting, and they go back, tell their friends and they come back again."
Both the Singapore and Chinese governments are also involved in important projects, including the Suzhou Industrial Park, the Tianjin Eco-city and the Guangzhou Knowledge City.
Mr Lee also spoke of the free trade agreement between China and Singapore, a landmark deal that entered into force in 2009 and has since promoted and liberalised trade, services and goods.
He said that the Singapore government would continue to work on improving bilateral relations to give businesses the confidence that they are operating in a "stable and positive" framework.
Singapore and China, meanwhile, will continue to work through the Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation, which is the two countries' highest-level bilateral meeting charting future development.
One topic that cropped up a number of times during the lively question- and-answer session was the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a mega free trade pact being negotiated by 12 countries, including Singapore but not China.
The US-led talks are well into the final stages and it is widely expected that a deal could be reached later this year.
Mr Lee opined that China was probably not ready to join the TPP negotiations at this stage, but would probably consider doing so in future.
On its part, China is one of 16 countries negotiating another proposed free trade agreement called the Regional Comprehensive Economic
Partnership (RCEP). This proposed FTA also involves all 10 Asean member states along with Australia, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand.
Mr Lee said that he felt China would be able to devote an equal amount of attention to both the TPP and RCEP, given that they cover very different areas and contexts.
"China is a huge powerhouse. I think China can get enough people to engage in two negotiations at the same time," said Mr Lee in Mandarin.
When asked what Singapore could learn from China, Mr Lee cited China's "spirit of openness" and its desire to try new things in order to improve itself.
He also lauded China's drive and compulsion to get ahead in life, something which he said was prevalent from the provinces to the big cities.