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Singapore's Lee Cements China Ties With Pre-Party Congress Visit

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, left, and China’s Premier Li Keqiang walk together during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

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 armored personnel carriers returning from a training exercise with China’s rival, Taiwan. Singapore and China accounted for $66 billion 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 U.S. in October. Traveling 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.

Read about a recent ministerial visit here

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.

To contact the reporters on this story: Keith Zhai in Singapore at qzhai4@bloomberg.net ;Ting Shi in Hong Kong at tshi31@bloomberg.net To contact the editors responsible for this story: Daniel Ten Kate at dtenkate@bloomberg.net Stephanie Phang, Brendan Scott
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