Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (fifth left) and ASEAN leaders pose for a group photo at the 21st China-ASEAN Summit in Singapore on ovember 14 (XINHUA)
On the heels of the first China International Import Expo, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang kicked off a Southeast Asia tour on November 12, which included meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the 13th East Asia Summit and other regional events.
The 21st China-ASEAN (10+1) leaders' meeting marked the 15th anniversary of the China-ASEAN Strategic Partnership, and during the meeting on November 14, the China-ASEAN Strategic Partnership Vision 2030, a blueprint guiding China-ASEAN future relations, was approved.
Under the plan, China and ASEAN will synergize the Belt and Road Initiative with the ASEAN Vision 2025 and strengthen three pillars, namely, political security, economy and trade, and people-to-people exchanges, to lift China-ASEAN relations to a higher level.
Addressing the meeting, Li called on all parties involved in negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) to keep up their efforts so as to clinch the deal next year.
Talks on the new Asia-Pacific free trade pact have reached the final stage. "We must build on the momentum and unleash a strong finishing kick, striving to complete the deal by 2019," the Chinese premier told leaders of ASEAN as well as South Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and India at the second RCEP leaders' meeting on November 14.
"The current international situation offers an opportunity for East Asian countries to reach regional economic integration," said Guo Yanjun, Director of the Institute of Asian Studies at China Foreign Affairs University, adding that unilateralism and protectionism will actually push East Asian countries to reach more consensus to promote free trade and achieve regional integration.
In light of the 21st ASEAN-China, Japan and South Korea (10+3) leaders' meeting that Li also attended, Guo noted, "In recent years, the 10+3 cooperation has been progressing relatively slowly, lacking motivation and cohesion." Nevertheless, an upward momentum surfaced this year.
China-Japan relations have started to thaw with the successful exchange visits of the government heads this year, while South Korea played a more positive role and achieved some results on the Korean Peninsula issue.
With the improvement of China-Japan-South Korea relations, the 10+3 cooperation also offers new opportunities and the momentum for regional economic integration is expected to accelerate, according to Guo.
One of its key objectives of the RCEP is to achieve a modern, comprehensive, high-quality and mutually-beneficial economic partnership agreement covering trade in goods and services, investment, economic and technical cooperation, intellectual property (IP), competition, e-commerce and dispute settlement.
ASEAN has multiple stand-alone plus-one trade agreements, which have created complex structural barriers in the region with different tariff rates and domestic rules of origin provisions. The RCEP is believed to streamline rules and procedures for each free trade agreement (FTA) and minimize the existing trade inefficiencies. Furthermore, rules for new fields such as IP and e-commerce will also be developed.
Once finalized, the RCEP will be the world's largest free trade bloc consisting of the 10 ASEAN member states and their six FTA partners: China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand. In total, the RCEP countries account for a quarter of the global GDP, nearly half of the world's population and one third of global trade.
According to economic observers, compared to the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which requires much deeper economic liberalization from its members and sets high standards that discourage developing countries from joining, the RCEP is a much more attractive alternative, since it makes fewer demands for economic change. In addition, the RCEP does not preclude members from joining other trade agreements like the CPTPP.
During the series of meetings, the Chinese premier also said that China would like to work with ASEAN to finalize the code of conduct (COC) for the South China Sea in the next three years by the next China-ASEAN (10+1) Summit. This is the first time that China has listed a timetable for the completion of the COC consultation.
China and ASEAN have kept stability in the South China Sea and made significant progress in talks on the COC, setting up a good example on managing differences on regional issues, Li said. He stressed that outsiders should respect the will of regional countries and have faith in their wisdom to keep peace and stability in the South China Sea.
The Chinese premier proposed China and ASEAN should promote maritime cooperation, especially in rescue operations, environmental protection, conservation of fishing resources and coast guard policing. His proposal gained positive response from ASEAN leaders. They agreed to push for the completion of talks on the COC and expand maritime cooperation with China so as to ensure peace and stability in the South China Sea.
Li's trip to Southeast Asia began with a state visit to Singapore, marking his first trip to the country as China's premier. During the visit, Li and his counterpart, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, agreed to deepen economic ties by upgrading the bilateral FTA.
Li arrived in Singapore on November 12, the same day as late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping's historic visit to the country in 1978. Forty years ago, on the eve of announcing China's reform and opening-up policy, Deng visited Singapore to lay the foundation for close ties between the two countries and sow the seeds for China learning from Singapore's advanced industrial development experience and management model.
In the ensuing four decades, Singapore has played a significant role in China's reform and opening up, as Li noted during his visit. It has provided China with valuable experience, and at the same time, China's development has brought about important opportunities for Singapore, thus both parties have benefited from cooperation.
During Li's visit, China and Singapore upgraded their FTA, which will offer Singaporean companies greater access to China's legal, maritime and construction service sectors, along with stronger protection for their investments. For instance, Singaporean law firms that have set up offices in the Shanghai Free Trade Zone (FTZ) can now partner with Chinese law firms to offer domestic and international legal services to clients anywhere in China. Singaporean shipping and ship management companies will be able to form majority-owned and wholly-owned foreign enterprises in the FTZs of Shanghai, Guangdong Province, Tianjin and Fujian Province, which have ports.
In turn, Singapore will open up its air transport, courier and environmental sectors to Chinese companies, allowing them to deliver parcels and documents in Singapore, as well as provide refuse collection and disposal and waste management services.
Li also said that Singapore is welcome to seize the opportunities brought about by China's new round of opening up by working with China to promote the upgrading of their pragmatic cooperation. He reiterated China's policies to continue streamlining administration, cutting taxes and reducing fees, and create a business environment of fair competition where Chinese and foreign enterprises are treated as equal. "We welcome more investment from Singapore to China," Li said in his speech on November 13.
Echoing Li, Singapore's Premier Lee spoke highly of the upgraded FTA. Lee said the upgrade will bring real benefits to the people and companies of both countries and send a strong signal of expansion of trade and investment.
The current FTA between the two countries went into effect in January 2009 and was China's first with another Asian country. China has been Singapore's top investment destination since 1997, as well as its largest trading partner since 2013.
The two leaders also witnessed the signing of the first memorandum of understanding on the Southern Transport Corridor, which consists of a number of railways and sea trade routes that will connect central and southwest China to Southeast Asia. Experts say the corridor will help China further open up to the world while creating a shortcut for Southeast Asian countries to enter the Chinese market.
Another highlight of Li's visit was recognizing the Sino-Singapore Guangzhou Knowledge City—an iconic bilateral cooperation program—as a national-level project that will promote cooperation in innovation, smart cities, urban management and artificial intelligence.
Copyedited by Rebeca Toledo
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